We have always referred to them as the Pilgrims. But if the beleaguered group of tempest-toss’d passengers who came over in the Mayflower were in the news today, we would call them by a different term: refugees.
When they gathered together at that first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, they had little enough to celebrate. It had been a year since they arrived in Massachusetts, desperately short of supplies and hopelessly far from the Virginia settlement they had been trying to reach. In just 12 months, half their people had died — “especially in January and February,” Governor William Bradford would later write, “being the depth of winter, and lacking houses and other comforts; [and] being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought upon them.”
They had risked their lives to flee unbearable danger in their native land. The danger came from theocratic rulers in England who insisted on submission to the established faith and could be merciless in abusing, even executing, religious nonconformists. “Cruelty and blood is in our streets, the land aboundeth with murders, slaughters . . . and whatsoever is evil,” wrote the English Puritan Robert Rice in a letter to John Winthrop (who in 1630 founded what would become the city of Boston). “Even the least of these is enough, and enough to make haste out of Babylon.”
Uprooting their families, leaving their homes behind, the Pilgrims headed first to Holland, then to America, braving terrible conditions and losing nearly everything in the process. Nevertheless, those who survived that grim first year gave thanks for having found safe haven, and for the generosity with which many of the native residents had accepted them.
This year, Thanksgiving arrives amid a national debate over refugees. It isn’t hard to draw parallels between the 400-year-old story of the Pilgrims and the contemporary plight of frightened Syrians fleeing ISIS and the brutal Assad regime. In an important sense, our national story is inextricably bound up with the idea of refuge. America has long thought of itself not just as a nation of immigrants, but especially as a nation of refugees — of men, women, and children who came here to escape the terrors of persecution, violence, and dictatorship, and who were willing to undergo severe deprivation and culture shock in order to live in the land of the free.
But the story has never been that simple. The United States has made room for tens of millions of refugees over the years. It became the world’s foremost superpower in part thanks to the economic, cultural, and scientific blessings those refugees brought with them. But rarely has America’s welcome been as open-armed as we like to remember.
During the 1930s and 1940s, large majorities of Americans were against letting refugees from the Nazi tyranny come to the United States. When Gallup in 1939 asked whether 10,000 refugee children from Germany should be permitted to enter the country “to be taken care of in American homes,” two-thirds of the public said no. Some politicians, including FDR, warned that refugees from Germany might be Nazi agents in disguise.
That wasn’t an anomaly.
The 1956 Hungarian uprising, encouraged by US broadcasts on Radio Free Europe, triggered a savage Soviet crackdown, and sent refugees fleeing into neighboring Austria and Yugoslavia. But when the Eisenhower administration proposed letting 65,000 of the Hungarians resettle here, a majority of Americans were opposed. Similarly, large majorities of the public told pollsters in 1979 that they didn’t want to provide visas to more than a trickle of refugees from the new communist dictatorships in Vietnam and Cambodia. Cubans escaping the Castro regime in 1980 and desperate Haitian boat people in 1994 likewise ran into a wall of American hostility to opening the gates.
Notwithstanding that opposition, our national tradition of admitting refugees endured. Since 1948, nearly 4 million refugees have come to the United States. And as each surge of refugees fades from the headlines, Americans incorporate them into our collective self-image as a haven for oppressed migrants “yearning to breathe free.” There can’t be too many Americans who would still insist — whatever they might have told Gallup decades ago — that admitting refugees from Nazi Europe or Vietnam or the Soviet Union was a mistake.
The current panic over Syrian refugees does not reflect our nation’s best instincts. Like earlier refugees stretching back to 1620, they are looking for peace, freedom, and a better life for their children. Our forebears found sanctuary here, and bequeathed to us so much for which we give thanks. Today’s vulnerable pilgrims — and tomorrow’s — offer us the chance to extend America’s humanitarian reputation, and thereby ensure that what is so admirable and humane in our tradition may be a source of blessings for many Thanksgivings to come.