Over the past few months, voices on the Left of the political spectrum like ThinkProgress.org have been reminding Republicans that back in the 80’s, no less a conservative father than Ronald Reagan had views on immigration that might be considered liberal today. Reagan, revered by conservatives for decades, said some pretty incredible things about immigration – shocking things when you consider the direction that Donald Trump has been taking the Republican Party on that issue in recent days. Yesterday, from the center, an ad campaign from the nonpartisan National Immigration Forum Action Fund came out calling upon the memory of some of Reagan’s words from his “City on a Hill” farewell speech from January, 1989. This ad will run during the GOP debate at, of all places, the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA on Wednesday night (9/16). Here is a broader context from the referenced speech:
The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
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, wind-swept, 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.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
The power of Reagan’s words about the pilgrim and the immigrant and the doors being “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here” did not stem just from a belief about the basic nobility of immigration, per se. The power of these words came from his rock solid belief in the transformative power of America that ultimately derived from a Biblical worldview (or a secular version of it) – the “shining city on a hill” that was to be a beacon of light to the whole world. He so believed in America as a people and as an idea that encompassed the best hope for freedom on this planet, that he believed that those who came here were drawn here by that light and that they would ultimately be transformed by it into what we all were together – Americans.
And, this belief that America was a transformative place rooted in transcendent values was not a recent idea that Reagan stumbled into in the 1980s. In June, 1952 in
“I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land. It was set here and the price of admission was very simple: the means of selection was very simple as to how this land should be populated. Any place in the world and any person from those places; any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here.”
Reagan expressed this belief of America as a “city on a hill” and a sort of “promised land” where anyone who had the courage and desire to leave their home country and come and work and strive along with us – that they were welcome here and that they too could become Americans. This is Biblical imagery. He says this at the very beginning of his political career, says it over and over again throughout, and he expressed it again 37 years later at the very end. This idea of the Transcendent and Transformative America as a refuge for people from all over the world who wanted to be free was a core belief of Reagan’s and it animated his fight against Communism and was the very vision by which he led our nation. And, it is at the very heart of his Conservatism.
Some other quotes expressing Reagan’s idea of a transcendent and transformative America welcoming to immigrants:
July 30, 1981 — Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy – “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands. No free and prosperous nation can by itself accommodate all those who seek a better life or flee persecution. We must share this responsibility with other countries.”
Donald Trump does not understand this vision, even though he claims to be carrying forth Reagan’s project of making America great again. He does not understand America or what motivated Reagan. He believes that America’s greatness is in our wealth and power and “winning” and who we keep out and the size of the walls that we can build. He appeals to a growing fear of demise and draws his power from that fear instead of tapping into a faith in who we are as a people. The fact that so many who call themselves “conservatives” are being taken in by Trump and his charade is a testimony to how much the Conservative movement has given way to fear and extreme selfishness and how far it has fallen from Reagan’s vision. Reagan understood that what needed to be conserved was the idea of a transcendent, transformative America that was a land of free people working hard to be all that God created them to be. Government was to aid all of that – not get in the way. And, he believed that those free people would come from every nation on earth to this place to be that people together.
Critics of the ad linked to above are already saying that Reagan was wrong on immigration or that he would not believe the same thing today. They are saying that the ad represents a desire for “open borders” and that it twists Reagan’s words. But, they misunderstand Reagan’s point. He was not advocating for open borders. He believed in border security and enforcement of immigration law. He did not want people coming here illegally and believed that those who came should come orderly and legally. But, his view on immigration flowed out of his belief that America was already a great nation and that part of what made us great was that we were made up of people from all over the world looking for freedom and a better way of life. Reagan had his critics back in the 80s, too. They came from the labor unions on the Left who feared that immigrants would take jobs from Americans. He countered that fear with a reminder of who America really was and a call for America to be that essential nation. No, Reagan’s views on immigration were not just located in his time. They were core to his own beliefs about conservatism and who America is as a nation. To reject Reagan’s perspective on immigration is to reject him and his political philosophy at its core and to promote an altogether different version of America – one that Reagan would not have been familiar with.
The reason that we now struggle to assimilate people who come to America is not because of the numbers or because of where they are from. We struggle to assimilate newcomers to America because we have forgotten who WE are and we fear and withdraw from them so we can protect ourselves and our own “way of life.” We have forgotten our own purpose and vision and we stopped believing in the power of the American Experiment in liberty. We stopped believing in the future, so we fear anyone new or anyone who isn’t exactly like us. It is our fear that causes us to entertain the idea of asking people like Donald Trump to lead us. That fear will ruin us. We need more of Reagan’s confidence.