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Thanksgiving is for immigrants

Thanksgiving is a holiday that all immigrants, both legal and undocumented, should embrace as their own custom.

This suggestion will doubtless stick in the craw of the nativist element within our nation; the Tea Party tools who finger thrust at the “scourge” of undocumented immigrants living among us; especially those who are taking crucial jobs found in the valet kiosks, sun-scorched fields and rank restrooms all across the country.

The prevailing discussions and imagery that Thanksgiving summons each year remind us of the Pilgrims who unwittingly initiated the tradition in 1621. The only reminder worth noting, however, is that this nation’s spiritual ancestors—the Puritans of Plymouth, England—arrived at this continent uninvited and without papers. Somehow no one else has any use for this truth, so it is a legacy that undocumented immigrants inherit by the mere fact of arriving and surviving in this country.

It so happens this year that Thanksgiving overlaps with the first day of Chanukah—a minor Jewish holiday. It commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem that followed a successful revolt against the empire armies of Antiochus IV over two thousand years ago. There having been only a one-day supply of olive oil available to keep the Temple’s seven-branch candelabra lit, the oil miraculously lasted eight days.

Given the coinciding of these two holidays and the nativist hostility toward immigrants, the only relevance that merits mention is the Jewish ethic of treating outsiders with consideration—codified in the Torah as a commandment to love or respect the stranger. The sacred text reiterates the imperative no less than 36 times (more frequently than the command to love God), often appended with the rationale “for you were strangers in Egypt”. This refers to the children of Israel’s captivity and servitude in Egypt. In the West, this social obligation represents the founding of the Golden Rule.

Somehow this is an ethic that Bible-thumping nativists have no use for. Moreover, it would be stroke inducing for them to accept that the transgression of mistreating strangers earned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah their destruction.

Here’s the twisted irony: through Thanksgiving we celebrate the good fortune we enjoy as families and as a nation, but shun the challenge of benevolence toward the stranger—especially the immigrant—within our own communities.

Without the constant influx of immigrants, born-citizens would easily lull themselves into the conviction that they have earned the good life they are supposed to be thankful for on the fourth Thursday of November each year. Immigrants are a vital reminder of the born citizen’s legacy in this nation—a descendent of strangers who were willing to hazard immense risk to leave their countries and cast their lot with our nation. Without a contemporary immigrant community, born citizens would be excused to view the privilege of living in the US as a blessing they are entitled to.

It should be considered a national shame how anti-immigrant antipathy has characterized a meaningful amount of the political discourse over immigration reform. The vitriol betrays an arrogance on the part of nativists—let Thanksgiving be damned.

Immigrants, however, embracing the Thanksgiving tradition as their own, serve as a living emblem of foreigners in past generations, as well as ‘original’ outsiders like the Pilgrims. Our culture enjoys constant renewal because they’ve chosen our nation as their destination for their dreams and ideas. Even more crucial is that we benefit from a living illustration of our collective immigrant past.