Obama pardons a turkey in 2014.

Obama pardons a turkey in 2014. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP file photo

Thanksgiving Comes During a National Debate Over Syrian Refugees

Last November, politicians sparred over Obama’s executive action on immigration. This year, it’s the Syrian refugee debate that’s tapping into concerns about American identity.

When President Obama announced an executive action last November to protect millions of immigrants from deportation, his East Room pitch was framed as an appeal to the commonality of American heritage.

“Whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship,” Obama said. His actions sparked a swift backlash and legal action from Republicans.

One year later, the nation remains divided over illegal immigration. But Obama’s now year-old appeal could just as easily be applied to a new headline-dominating debate: what to do with the thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing war. For the second year in a row—and entirely by coincidence—the Thanksgiving holiday comes amidst a national political conversation over who deserves the right to live in the United States.   

These debates are rooted in centuries-old arguments. Americans and their colonial antecedents—who were, of course, immigrants themselves—have struggled with the question of who should be allowed here and under what circumstances. They have questioned the fitness of indigenous Americans, African Americans, women, and members of other groups to be full, participating citizens.

At their root, these debates are about the conception of America as a country. In broad strokes, the GOP aims to protect and preserve the America it knows. The party tends to be skeptical of policies that would bring new people into the fold, arguing that some broke the law crossing the nation’s borders, and others could threaten national security. Democrats often support policies that are more sympathetic to those seeking to join the ranks of Americans. They tend to back actions that encourage people to “come out of the shadows,” and would open the U.S. up to taking more refugees.

Some of the same Republican elected officials who criticized Obama’s actions on immigration last year have lambasted his plans to take in more refugees this fall. Those elected officials aren’t acting in a vacuum: A recent Bloomberg Politics poll showed that 53 percent of Americans oppose the Obama administration’s plans to admit more Syrian refugees into the country. And 48 percent—and the vast majority of Republicans—opposed Obama’s executive action, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey.

After the president’s announcement last November, some Republicans in Congress painted the executive action as damaging to immigration-reform efforts, claiming that he had overstepped his legal authority. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz also claimed that by moving to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, Obama was being “unfair” to the country’s legal immigrants. The party’s messaging was a concern for top Republicans, who feared that anti-immigrant rhetoric would further damage their efforts to court Hispanic voters.

As The New York Times noted just before Thanksgiving last year, “congressional leaders were privately relieved that many Republicans had left Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday before Mr. Obama announced plans for his address, reducing the availability of anti-immigration conservatives for cable-television bookers seeking reactions.” And all that political hand-wringing happened months before Donald Trump would launch his bid for the presidency, bringing anti-immigrant anger to the forefront of the presidential primary season.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats like Minority Leader Harry Reid—whose home state of Nevada is roughly 28 percent Hispanic—lauded the president’s move last November. Reid said Thanksgiving that year was “particularly special,” because “many immigrant families celebrated the holiday for the first time without the threat of deportation.”

This year, anti-refugee messaging dovetails with the post-Paris “nativist hysteria” of the American public—as Peter Beinart put it earlier this week—and the nationalism that’s made a political star of Trump. It’s been more than two months since a photo of a drowned Syrian boy shocked America’s collective conscious, and more than two months since the Obama administration announced it would try to take in roughly 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of the 2016 fiscal year.

But it wasn’t until the Paris attacks that the debate hit a fever pitch, thanks in no small part to the Republican presidential primary contestants. Their refugee-related soundbites dominated several news cycles: Trump contemplated a national database of Muslims; Jeb Bush and Cruz said they’d favor allowing only Christian refugees into the country; and Carly Fiorina cast doubt on the government’s ability to fully vet each refugee, to highlight just a few examples.

Well over half of the country’s governors, too, oppose refugee settlement in their states. And on Capitol Hill, legislators have moved on anti-refugee legislation, with the Republican-controlled House passing a measure to impose more stringent security screening on refugees from Syria and Iraq. Doing so is a matter of the utmost national security, say Republicans like new House Speaker Paul Ryan, as the U.S. aims to prevent a Paris-style attack on its shores.

“Terrorists have made it clear that they intend to infiltrate this refugee population to reach the West and carry out other attacks,” Ryan wrote this week in an op-ed for CNN. “Most refugees pose absolutely no threat to us, but we simply don't have a sufficient process for figuring out who each person is and verifying his or her background.”

For now, both debates remain in limbo; the Senate will deal with the House’s bill after legislators return from the current recess, and the president’s executive action is stuck in the courts. But on Thursday, both sides will briefly break from their fighting to join their families around the Thanksgiving table. They may all eat the same turkey, but that’s no guarantee they’ll be celebrating the same vision of America.