The Pilgrims: America’s First Refugees

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There is a lot of discussion on the Internet lately about refugees, and particular states’ ability to welcome or refuse refugees. Our Thanksgiving tradition in America is a reminder of America’s first refugees arriving to the shores, seeking refuge from religious persecution.

America’s modern day refugee laws are centered on the 1980 Refugee Act, which is our codification of the 1967 Protocol and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The Act, along with the Protocol, defines a refugee as a person who “is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable and unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Most Americans know the story of the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, fleeing religious persecution in England, and seeking to start a new life in America. The tradition of Thanksgiving comes from the story of the feast following a successful harvest in 1621, and it was a coming together of the native people and the Puritans who had sought refuge in the new world.

Today, the discussion of refugees landing in America is making headlines, particularly with regard to those arriving from Syria. There are an estimated 4 million refugees from Syria who have been displaced. The United States has committed to bringing in approximately 10,000 refugees within this fiscal year. Other countries will bear the heaviest burden, and our numbers are but a mere drop in the bucket compared to those who are fleeing the violent civil war in Syria.

Much is said about the potential for violence and terrorism committed by refugees arriving to our shores. While security concerns are legitimate concerns with immigration, there is an abundance of misinformation floating around the Internet regarding refugees and terrorism. Here are some little-known truths to counter that misinformation:

  • Refugees generally wait 18-24 months before being cleared to finally arrive in the United States. This is not a fast track into the United States, and refugees are having their security cleared during this long wait.

  • One of the Paris attackers was a refugee from Syria. The rest were either citizens of Belgium or France.

  • A governor of a state has no authority to prevent a refugee from any country from arriving in their state. Refugees are admitted through a federal program, and are permitted to arrive in any of our 50 states, without restriction.

  • The Tsarnaev Brothers, also known as the Boston Bombers (from the 2013 Boston Marathon), did not come to the United States as refugees. They first entered the U.S. as tourists.

  • The September 11th hijackers entered the United States on student and tourist visas.

  • A 1938 poll showed that over 2/3 of Americans opposed providing refuge to Jewish refugees during Nazi control of Germany.

It is seemingly easy to fear admitting refugees. But ending refugee admittance is not only an unreasonable solution, it is un-American and wrong. Our country is founded on a long history of providing refuge to those fleeing persecution. Whether we look to Emma Lazarus’s poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty, seeking “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” or to President Reagan’s talk of a shining city on a hill, today’s refugees are no different than those that have arrived at our shores for hundreds of years. And today’s refugees face the same fear and xenophobia that refugees have faced for generations.

So this Thanksgiving, remember that we are celebrating the bounty we have earned as Americans. And we celebrate together, welcoming those who have sought refuge from persecution on our shores, just as the Pilgrims did nearly 400 years ago.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tagged in: Refugees

Bryon M. Large, Sr. is a Senior Associate Attorney at Kolko & Associates, P.C., a Denver-based full service immigration law firm. He is licensed to practice law by the Colorado Supreme Court and has also been admitted by the United States District Court for the District of Colorado and the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. He received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Denver and his undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico. Bryon actively practices removal defense, federal litigation, family-based and employment-based immigration, asylum and naturalization.


Bryon is a past Chapter Chair for the Colorado Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), as well as a Past Chair of the Immigration Law Section of the Colorado Bar Association. He currently serves as the President of the Colorado LGBT Bar Association, an Elected Director on the AILA Board of Governors, and is a member of the National LGBT Bar Association.


Bryon’s true passion in life is being a father to his two children.

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