Reagan viewed the immigration debate through the prism of an earlier era

A liberal, pro-amnesty group has launched an expensive advertising campaign in the days leading up to the next GOP debate which seeks to tear down Republican presidential candidates on the immigration issue. That’s not too unusual on the face of it, but they’ve chosen a rather ironic symbol from the past to carry their message… The Gipper himself. (Reuters)

A television ad launched on Sunday by the National Immigration Forum Action Fund contrasts Reagan’s call for the United States to welcome all people with the stances of Trump, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who have proposed an end to birthright citizenship and urged other crackdowns.

The ad highlights Trump’s demand for a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and comments that Mexican immigrants were “bringing crime” and are “rapists.”

It shows a clip from Reagan’s 1989 farewell address from the White House in which he references the journey to the United States of John Winthrop, an English Puritan who imagined America as a “city upon a hill.”

Reagan described his idea of the “shining city” as one that was “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”

They’ve been running this ad on CNN almost non-stop so I’d already seen it before it became fodder for cable news commentary. Right up front I feel compelled to offer a tip of may hat to the group. This is a really well put together ad and it pings off one of the most historic, recognizable faces in conservative politics. Obviously I disagree with their message entirely and find it both misguided and misleading, but simply speaking as someone who has had to work in this industry… that’s a darned good ad. In case you haven’t seen it, here it is.

Of course, absent from this discussion is that fact that we’re peering through a window back in time to the cold war. We’re also looking at a president who was a very different type of politician from pretty much any we have today in terms of tone, temperament and general outlook on the world. Reagan always seemed to see everything and everyone in the most positive light. His message was almost universally one of hope and a belief in the fundamental goodness of not just America, but of mankind and all of God’s creation in general.

But more to the point, both our immigration situation and the threats that America faced back in the 80s were quite different. There were already terrorists and problems in Muslim nations, but they hadn’t yet exploded on the rest of the world as they would in the 90s. (For example, he came into office at the end of the Iran hostage crisis, but it was still a problem which remained essentially in Iran.) The big threats which occupied Reagan’s time were the Soviet Union and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. He could afford to be a bit more cavalier about the borders since that’s not where the major threat was taking place.

One of the quotes the group fixates on toward the end is powerful, but was quite different when viewed in the context of Reagan’s era.

Reagan described his idea of the “shining city” as one that was “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”

“If there had to be city walls,” he added, “the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Yes, there did have to be walls around the shining city, but Reagan clearly believed in having a door. And he wanted that door to be open to “anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Is there any sane, honest person who thinks that President Reagan meant people with the “will and the heart” to sneak across the borders in the night in violation of the laws? Was he talking about policies which would pave the way for wannabe terrorists who sought entry only so they could try to blow up our buildings? He was talking about people who truly yearned to be free and to join us as part of the American dream. And further, we already had immigration laws in place at that time, so he was talking about aspiring citizens who were willing to follow the rules and take their place with the rest of the naturalized citizens.

Reagan did have a beautiful vision for America for all of his days. But he was also dealing with a very different world with a different set of challenges. It’s a shame to see a group such as this twist his words to score cheap political points.