America Is an Idea Founded on Thanksgiving and Refugees

I've always been proud of my heritage. I had nothing to do with it, yet for some reason where my family came from and how they arrived in the United States has long given me a sense of dignity.

Two elements of my family history intersect in my head every Thanksgiving. My maternal grandfather's family in part were Native Americans (well, Native Canadians) here in North America for hundreds if not thousands of years before most Europeans. My paternal grandmother's family, the Bassetts, have been New England staples since the Plymouth Colony, with William Bassett first setting sail from England in 1621. I am, or at least some small percentage of me is, just about as long-standing American as you can get.

The origins of our Thanksgiving are as American as you can get, too.

I won't quibble with details here. I wasn't there in 1621 at the first Thanksgiving dinner, and our historical records on this are like a game of telephone, shifting and turning depending on the predilections of the storyteller. Whether or not that first Thanksgiving happened much like we've been told all of these years, the fable - of persecuted refugees from across the Atlantic sitting down with open-armed Native Americans to give thanks - is ingrained in our American fabric. That story has resonated with us for 500 years because it is America.

Now we are again engaged in a debate about refugees coming to this land. Again they are from across the Atlantic Ocean, and again they are escaping persecution looking for a life of freedom. And yes, again people in North America are skeptical, wondering about the motives of these people who may look a little different or worship a different god.

Unlike in 1620, these refugees from the Middle East need our permission to enter. Five hundred years ago, and for generations after, my ancestors simply arrived. Since then we have formed a nation, raised borders and built a military second to none.

People say America is more than just a nation, it is an idea. That idea took shape centuries ago at that table covered (in all likelihood) with fowl, corn, mussels and clams. It was that bridge between two cultures that has been a part of our American psyche and led to the birth of our nation.

To close our borders to refugees today - to much the same people who wrote the Mayflower Compact and helped create our seminal Thanksgiving tradition - would eat at the very idea of America.

Does this mean we open the floodgates and allow anyone to enter the United States? Of course not. The Native Americans had no control - and no way to control - who and how many people arrived on the shores of their land. That did not work out well for them. If they had been able to "trust but verify" those entering their land, they would have.

Like with the Pilgrims of 1620, the people coming to this country are, for the most part, good-natured refugees seeking a better life in a land with less persecution and less hate. Despite how so many seem to paint the United States today, this nation still represents that opportunity.

Also like the Pilgrims, there are those among the current Syrian refugees who seek to destroy our people and conquer our land. They don't bring muskets and swords, they smuggle automatic weapons and bombs. The danger they pose to the safety of every American is very real. We cannot ignore that.

Yet the danger the fear of them poses to the idea of America, begun 500 years ago, is even more dangerous.

Fear has, at times, made Americans forget what they are. Japanese internment camps in World War II. The Hollywood Blacklist during the early Cold War. These are not proud moments of our collective history, they are dark reminders of the power fear can wield over us and the danger fear poses to the end of America.

If America is an idea, then the only thing that can kill it now is that fear. We may always have the land, we may keep hold of the factories and the farms. Our military may be the mightiest in the world for decades to come. But if we allow fear to dictate our policies and close our shores to today's refugees, then we have lost America - the idea and the nation - forever.