Viewpoint: Thanksgiving is time to act on behalf of immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers

Karen Rubin, Columnist

Thanksgiving is steeped in nostalgia. The origins go back to traditions of giving prayerful thanks for the harvest and for simply surviving – something common across ethnic and religious traditions. As a national holiday, the origins go back to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

We look to Thanksgiving as an expression of the best of who we are – charitable, loving, kind, compassionate, how ecumenical we are!

But most of all, how living in our system, a nexus of Christianity and capitalism, religion and commerce, produces such bounty and prosperity. Thanksgiving is the symbol of American Exceptionalism. But it is a contrived symbol, built on deliberately fabricated myth.

After waves of European immigrants descended upon America in search of their American Dream, recruited by industrialists desperate for laborers to build, mine and manufacture, Thanksgiving was used as a model for welcoming the “other” and as a kind of model of citizenship and a loyalty oath to the adopted country (think Norman Rockwell’s painting, “Freedom from Want”).

But hostility to immigrants grew until exploding in the 1920s with the Palmer Raids and quotas and has resurfaced despite relative economic prosperity as a political weapon.

The United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world, according to Pew Research ( The U.S. foreign-born population reached a record 44.4 million in 2017, accounting for 13.6 percent of the U.S. population, triple the share (4.7 percent) in 1970.

Still, today’s immigrant share remains below the record 14.8 percent in 1890, when 9.2 million immigrants lived in the US.

A bigger reason for the change in reception? Only 13 percent of immigrants living in the U.S. today have come from Europe or Canada (that is, white, Christian places).

More than 1 million immigrants arrive each year, coming in the greatest numbers from India, Mexico, China and Cuba. In 2018, 800,000 immigrants applied for naturalization.

Immigrants and their U.S.-born children now number 89.4 million people – 28 percent of the population, according to the 2018 Current Population Survey. Pew Research Center projects that the immigrant-origin share will rise to about 36 percent by 2065. That of course, is Trump, the white nationalists and the Republicans’ greatest nightmare and why Trump put Stephen Miller in charge of the anti-immigration crusade.

Trump’s policies – many of which have been found to be unlawful if not unconstitutional for their cruelty and violations of human and civil rights – resulted in more than 70,000 children forcibly taken from their families; unending incarceration in for-profit prisons for people trying to make a claim for asylum (Trump boasts this is “an end to catch-and-release”); the perennial anxiety of 700,000 DACA recipients not knowing when the Trump administration will deport them to countries where they have no connection, based on the information they had to provide the government (that’s called entrapment) or snatch their parents away.

Trump hasn’t just launched a war against the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, he has moved to all but shut down legal immigration.

Trump has reduced the number of refugees who will be accepted to a historic low of 18,000 – down from 110,000 under Obama – with specific quotas based on geography and category. A new round of proposed regulations from the administration would make it impossible for most asylum seekers to be permitted to work while their cases are pending.

The innumerable weapons that Trump has hurled against immigration are listed by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice organization (a group banned by the Puritan theocracy): slowing lawful immigration processes; pushing more people into deportation proceedings; punishing immigrants with legal status and their families; undermining and sabotaging asylum; banning people from Muslim countries; using the immigration courts to increase deportations, reopening closed cases and putting unrealistic quotas on immigration judges; creating a more xenophobic and closed country, removing “nation of immigrants” from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service mission statement; prosecuting naturalized citizens to strip their citizenship; stripping legal status from 1 million by terminating DACA and ending Temporary Protected Status; creating obstacles for workers and families; limiting avenues to access immigration services, closing all 21 overseas USCIS field offices across 20 countries, increasing fees to apply to immigrate; curtailing family immigration (except where Melania’s parents are concerned); targeting the Diversity Visa Program.

Democratic 2020 candidates have offered their own immigration plans which reverse the horrors perpetrated by the Trump Administration. Here, for example, is Bernie Sanders’ plan, but it is consistent with others:

Use executive authority to reverse Trump’s harmful actions on immigration, including ensuring asylum seekers can make their claims in the US, ending family detention and separation, reuniting families, reversing the Muslim ban and halting construction on Trump’s racist border wall);
Place a moratorium on deportations and end ICE raids;
Restore and expand DACA;
Push Congress to enact a fair, swift, and inclusive path to legalization if not citizenship for the 11 million undocumented living in the United States;
Restructure the bloated, dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security, break up ICE and CBP and return their core functions to their previous departments, and begin treating immigration outside the context of national security;
Decriminalize and demilitarize the border, ensure migrants due process, and fully fund and staff independent immigration courts.
(See Sanders’ plan:

Organizations are taking action, including the ACLU (, HIAS (, United Nations Refugee Agency (, the International Rescue Committee ( This holiday season, think of supporting them.

Since Civil War times, Thanksgiving has been used to unify the nation and express the best values of what it means to be American.

But today, to reconcile this nation’s betrayal of those values because they are inconvenient to the maintenance of the power structure, Thanksgiving has retreated to a family affair, a politics-free zone where we are supposed to be unconcerned about the sustainability of the planet or the security of those outside our own homestead and tribe.

About the author

Karen Rubin

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