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A Thanksgiving lesson for Obama's immigration move

President Obama's move to shield many illegal immigrants from deportation came just before Thanksgiving. There is a lesson in that first close encounter between English settlers and native Americans.

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    An interpreter of Pilgrim life in 1627, John Kemp, chats with visitors at the living history museum of Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass.
    Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor /file
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Much can be debated about President Obama’s decision to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Will this encourage more illegal migration? Is he exceeding his powers? Will Americans lose jobs? Why split the country over such an emotional issue?

All are valid questions. But lost in the debate is the fact that his action came just as Americans were about to celebrate Thanksgiving. 

Yes, the national holiday may simply help Mr. Obama by diverting public attention from his controversial move. But Thanksgiving, which arrives with all its stories and symbolism about America’s origins, can also serve as a step-back moment. Americans can reflect on how two cultures – the first English settlers and the native Americans – struggled to accommodate each other in the 1600s. 

Thanksgiving is usually a time for gratitude and to be with loved ones, a distant echo of the first Pilgrim-Indian feast in 1621. Yet that first cross-cultural meal in Plymouth was a high point in their relations. For decades, both sides wrestled over how to live together in the wilds of New England

As with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today, tensions were often difficult in Plymouth Colony (which later joined the Puritan commonwealth). Many Indians and Puritans were slowly weaving a common society through trade and marriage, blending their customs and beliefs. Yet others wanted a clean split, even to kill the other side, in the name of keeping the old ways.  

Part of Mr. Obama’s rationale for his action is that millions of undocumented migrants, having lived here for years, are now too much part of American society. They should not be sent back to their home country. Mass deportation would be mass cruelty. Many Republicans accept this fact while also insisting on secure borders first and no reward of citizenship for those who have broken US law. 

In one way, Obama’s action is very conservative. A tenet of conservatism is that a society should be reformed only slowly to preserve it. Deporting millions of immigrants would greatly disrupt American society. Yet many in the GOP are also being conservative. They say these millions of lawbreakers, with the possibility of many more to come, are already ripping apart society. Immigration must be legal and by design, they say. And it must come with some certainty of assimilation, at least in civic values.

Immigration debates are hardly new in the US. But as tensions are rising again over the issue, Americans can look for a lesson in their first immigrant drama between the Indians and Puritan-Pilgrims. 

After decades of living in relative harmony, the two sides eventually engaged in a brutal conflict in 1675-76 known as the King Philip’s War. In a recent book, “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War,” historian Nathaniel Philbrick describes the prelude to the war this way: 

“[T]he Indians and English of Plymouth Colony did not live in a static idyll of mutual support. Instead, it was fifty-five years of struggle and compromise – a dynamic, often harrowing process of give and take. As long as both sides recognized that they needed each other, there was peace. The next generation, however, came to see things differently.” 

The war eventually left much of New England devastated. The Indians lost, and for centuries would be set apart by white society. In Mr. Philbrick’s view, however, an English militia captain named Benjamin Church, who helped bring an end to the war, left a valuable lesson. In an account written four decades later by his son, Church claims he perceived the Indians differently than his fellow settlers. He chose to learn from the native culture and befriend the neutral Indians; he even criticized their enslavement. According to the account, Church saw enslavement of Indians as an action so hateful he “opposed it to the loss of the good will and respect of some that were before [my] good friends.”

Church’s account is not given too much credibility by scholars, coming so late after the war. Nonetheless, Philbrick draws a lesson for today. As he told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review:

“What I admire most about him is when he was in the middle of this terrible conflict, when everyone else was filled with hatred and anger, he was saying wait a minute, we can’t think of the enemy as the devil. These are people, they have their own motivations; if we think of them as people, it’s in our own self interest. I think that’s a very important message that’s relevant at any time. It’s so easy to succumb to fear and anger. To resist that, I think, is one of nobler aspects of human nature.”

This Thanksgiving, both Americans and undocumented immigrants can recall a little-known Pilgrim, Benjamin Church. He often saw his opponents as sharing many common values with the settlers. He won a vicious war over them, perhaps regretting it. But his memory at least left a lesson for another later struggle between two sets of people living in the same land.

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