A Reagan love letter to immigrants. I joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and remained in the Navy until 1982. The years between the end of the war and the election of Ronald Reagan were a time when the military was generally disrespected and consequently morale was low. But more, the entire country experienced economic stresses, long gas lines, loss of confidence and you might say vision, and loss of respect around the world, culminating in the taking of American hostages in Tehran. President Carter described it this way:
“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
When Reagan appeared on the scene to challenge Carter for the White House he spoke clearly and forcefully against this national “malaise” as it came to be called. With his election we in the military once again felt our service was important and appreciated. And Reagan articulated a vision of America that had propelled the United States to world leadership. America, the land of freedom. The shining city on a hill. The land that was open to anyone. The land that was worth defending so that we could expand institutions and ideals of liberty to everyone. If you couldn’t achieve it in your own country you were welcome to come to America. America’s opportunity was open to everyone who believed in and was willing to work for it.
I did not know then but I realize now that some of Reagan’s policies caused damage we are still feeling the effects of today. I won’t try to defend Reaganomics or union busting or indifference to the AIDS crisis. But I will nevertheless grant that his articulation of the national ideal still inspires. I remember a cartoon from just after Reagan’s inauguration that showed him charging headlong into a forest, with people following saying, “I don’t know where he’s going but I like the way he leads!” He may not have been one of our best Presidents but he was certainly one of the most loved. If his name were to appear on the ballot today he would be elected, and he’s been dead for fifteen years.
Ronald Reagan advocated for immigrants, including “illegal” immigrants. Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, essentially declaring all immigrants legal. And his last public speech as President on his last day in office contained a love letter to immigrants.
As we contemplate a President and a Party that cynically appeals to the Reagan legacy while closing the government over Christmas in defense of a wall of fear, we have to ask ourselves how we got from the shining city to the dumpster fire.
It is bold men and women, yearning for freedom and opportunity, who leave their homelands and come to a new country to start their lives over. They believe in the American dream. And over and over, they make it come true for themselves, for their children, and for others. They give more than they receive. They labor and succeed. And often they are entrepreneurs. But their greatest contribution is more than economic, because they understand in a special way how glorious it is to be an American. They renew our pride and gratitude in the United States of America, the greatest, freest nation in the world — the last, best hope of man on Earth.