Be Thankful for Immigrants

Immigrant Contributions and Influences Shape Our Nation

As a nation of immigrants, we should be thankful for their enduring contributions and continuing influence, writes William Flanagan.

Our nation celebrates Thanksgiving this week, as we’ve done every year officially since 1863 and unofficially since the first immigrants stepped ashore in Florida, Virginia, and Massachusetts in the late 1500s and early 1600s. On this holiday, Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds commemorate the spirit of friendship and welcoming exhibited in particular by the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 toward the newly arrived Plymouth colonists.

The early colonists came to this country for new opportunity—to seek their fortune, escape persecution, and provide a better life for themselves and their children. Others came in chains but after the end of slavery slowly found those same opportunities, too. Immigrants come to this country today for similar reasons, and we, like the Wampanoag tribe before us, should welcome them.

In short, we are a nation of immigrants—all of us trace our origins to another land. Our culture is a blended one—from music to food to fashion, traditions from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America come together to form a distinctly American culture. American music would not be the same without its Scotch-Irish and Afro-Caribbean influences, just as California cuisine would not be the same without its Latin and Asian influences. Our history and our destiny are shaped by our diversity.

We are irreparably, irrevocably, and proudly immigrant. From the operating room to the Cabinet Room to the shuttle Discovery, immigrants and their descendants created and continue to contribute to the development of this great nation. We hold parades to celebrate our Irish ancestry, festivals to spread our Caribbean culture, and our calendar is replete with holidays for every faith group and days in which we commemorate and remember our nation’s history.

Yet with each new wave of immigrants come repeated false claims, stereotypes, slurs, and irrational fears of crime, disease, and fewer jobs for the native born. From Catholics and the Irish in the 17th and 18th centuries, to Chinese and eastern European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, repeated attempts were made to stymie the contributions of immigrants. Time and again new arrivals were castigated as less virtuous than the earlier immigrants, and claims were made that they would not assimilate into American culture. All bogus, of course, yet the naysayers of today focus their attention on immigrants from Latin America. The current economic downturn, a stubbornly high rate of unemployment, and a deadlocked U.S. Congress embolden state legislators to pass massively prejudicial laws that harm their state’s economies, their residents, and their immigrants. Today’s immigrants, however, just like each and every wave of immigrants before them, are on track to integrate quite well into American society. They are going to school, learning English, and buying homes at rates higher than the native born.

Reports from Alabama, which recently followed in the ill-advised footsteps of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 anti-immigration law, indicate that the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant law will cost Alabama a minimum of $40 million if only 10,000 undocumented workers leave the state, in addition to $130 million per year in lost tax revenue were they to drive out the entire undocumented community. The Alabama law, which makes it a crime to be without status:

  • Requires law enforcement to check the papers of anyone they suspect of being undocumented
  • Mandates that public schools check the legal status of their students and their students’ parents
  • Abrogates any contract made with an undocumented immigrant

Make no mistake: This will damage Alabama’s economy, undermine the health and safety of all Alabamans, and jeopardize the welfare of children and families across the state.

Alabama’s law, and those like it, seeks to redefine the American Dream to one where our doors are closed to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. To do so is against the spirit of Thanksgiving and against the spirit of America. So this Thanksgiving, celebrate by being thankful for one of America’s greatest strengths—our immigrants. We quite literally wouldn’t be here without them.

William Flanagan is the Special Events Coordinator at American Progress.

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William Flanagan

Senior Director, Special Events