Thanksgiving: The Anti-Immigration Holiday

by Jason Dzubow on November 26, 2012

in Immigration

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Last week, I posted about how Thanksgiving is the quintessential refugee holiday.  I didn’t want to say anything negative about Thanksgiving before the holiday, as that would be a bit of a humbug.  But now, enough time has passed that most of the leftover Turkey is gone, and now I want to write about the more challenging side of the holiday for immigration advocates.  Of course, I speak about the fact that the immigrants in the Thanksgiving scenario (the Europeans) essentially eradicated the original inhabitants of their new country (the Native Americans). 

Europeans were generally not known for being cordial to the Native Americans.

It has always surprised me that more anti-immigration folks don’t use Thanksgiving as an example of what happens when immigration runs amok.  Fifty years after the first Thanksgiving, most of the Wampanoag tribe (the Native Americans who dined with the Pilgrims in 1621) were either dead or sold into slavery.  From an estimated population of 6,600 in 1610, the Wampanoag were reduced to only about 400 individuals by 1677 (they have since recovered somewhat – in 2000, the estimated population was 2,336).  In short, while the first Thanksgiving was lovey-dovey, things didn’t end too well for the native peoples who received the new immigrants.  But this is something we rarely hear about from immigration restrictionists.

I suppose one reason that Thanksgiving is not used by immigration opponents is that it’s not easy to be anti-Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is probably the most popular non-religious holiday in the U.S., and to oppose Thanksgiving might seem un-American (in fact, to oppose Thanksgiving is un-American).  Since immigration opponents always seem to be uber patriots, I guess they do not want to be seen opposing the holiday.

Another reason that the holiday is not used against immigrants is that the analogy between European settlers/colonialists and modern-day immigrants really does not stand up.  The settlers of old were not trying to integrate into the indigenous culture; they were trying to conquer it.  Even if–as some restrictionists might argue–modern day immigrants do not integrate into mainstream society, they are clearly not in the same position to conquer our country as the settlers who conquered the New World.  We are much larger and more unified than the pre-Colombian indigenous peoples.  The number of immigrants coming to the U.S. these days is much smaller proportionately than the number of Europeans coming here in the colonial period.  Finally, most Native Americans died from diseases, and–Lou Dobbs notwithstanding–that is not a real threat to us today (at least not because of immigration).  So even if restrictionists wanted to use Thanksgiving as a cautionary tale about too much immigration, the analogy is weak.

Thanksgiving is frequently cited by pro-immigration types (and pro-asylum types like me).  I do think the holiday could be used to raise questions about immigration: How much immigration is good for our country, whether immigrants appropriately integrate into our society, how best to handle people who are here illegally.  But for restrictionists, maybe it is safer and more effective to raise those issues separately from the Thanksgiving holiday.  That’s fine with me, as I am a fan of Thanksgiving.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I know we have some leftover cranberry sauce around here somewhere…

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