Will any GOP candidates dare to say what Reagan thought of immigrants?

Screenshot 2015-09-16 14.40.16Tonight the Republican presidential candidates will debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and it goes without saying the former president will be invoked over and over again.

Reagan’s the Great Man of modern American conservatism. Heck, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist even started an organization, the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project to get things named after Reagan. One commentator, Jonathan Chait, compared all the Reagan talk to what you might see from a cult.

These days a dominant issue among Republicans is immigration. Donald Trump used the issue to skyrocket to first place in national and state polls. In doing so, Trump’s employed highly charged, negative language about Mexicans and all illegal immigrants.

But this anti-immigration perspective is nothing like what Reagan held.

Reagan saw immigrants’ desire to come to America as an indicator of our country’s greatness and exceptionalism.

For instance, Reagan spoke about refugees, or what Trump (and LePage and others would call “illegals”) and how they saw our nation.

I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one—a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant.

The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.” [source]

The refugee recognized America as a place of freedom. This did not undermine the U.S., but buttressed our ideals.

And Reagan supported and signed a major piece of pro-immigration legislation. As a news account from 2010 described it:

As the nation’s attention turns back to the fractured debate over immigration, it might be helpful to remember that in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law. It was sold as a crackdown: There would be tighter security at the Mexican border, and employers would face strict penalties for hiring undocumented workers.

But the bill also made any immigrant who’d entered the country before 1982 eligible for amnesty — a word not usually associated with the father of modern conservatism. [source]

Reagan frequently used Puritan John Winthrop’s words that America was like a “shining city set on a hill.”

He explained what he meant by that in his farewell address, a speech that talked about America’s openness to people around the world.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.

And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still. [source]

Look at that last paragraph and what it says about walls. If they existed, they had to have doors, “open to anyone with the will and heart to get there.”

Reagan’s sons have criticized today’s Republicans’ anti-immigration rhetoric and proposals and said their father would not have agreed.

But what will happen tonight? When Mr. Trump talks about building a big wall, will any other Republican candidates tell him what Reagan thought and did? Or will they just keep calling out Reagan’s name?

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.