“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
So says the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, when the Founding Fathers, who had lived most or their entire lives under British rule, cut off the political, religious, and economic sovereignty of King George III and the British Parliament more than 3,000 miles away, but with red-coated troops in the rebels’ backyards.
Now, 262 years later, America remains a republic that has endured as a beacon of freedom for all in the world.
On the anniversary of that important day more than two centuries ago, Fox News a rather emotional commercial. Sponsored by the liberal group Becoming American Initiative, it showed Ronald Reagan in front of the Statue of Liberty speaking to a crowd and formally launching his 1980 bid for the presidency.
“Through this Golden Door,” Reagan says in the 30-second ad, “have come millions of men and women. These families came here to work. Others came to America and often [from] harrowing conditions.”
He continued, “They didn’t ask what this country could do for them but what they could do to make this, this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history. They brought with them courage, and the values of family, work, and freedom. Let us pledge to each other, that we can make America great again.”
For only 30 seconds, it’s a pretty good TV spot. Effective, emotional — and it plays right into both conservative and liberal hands. It must be noted, however, that many liberals hated Reagan’s guts when he was alive.
The spot is also misleading because once you think about it, you realize the differences between today’s immigration crisis and yesterday’s are huge.
Let’s put this to rest right up front: The only person who could say, definitely, what Reagan would think or say today, about anything, is Reagan himself. Unfortunately for all of us, he is no longer with us.
It was only a 30-second commercial, so its sponsor had to cut much of Reagan’s speech. And what was cut from the ad is crucially important. Here is the transcript of the spot, with the omitted words from Reagan’s speech shown in bold:
Through this Golden Door, under the gaze of that Mother of Exiles, has come millions of men and women, who first stepped foot on American soil right there, on Ellis Island, so close to the Statue of Liberty.
These families came here to work. They came to build. Others came to America in different ways, from other lands, under different, and often harrowing conditions, but this place symbolizes what they all managed to build, no matter where they came from or how they came or how much they suffered.
They helped to build that magnificent city across the river. They spread across the land building other cities and towns and incredibly productive farms.
They came to make America work. They didn’t ask what this country could do for them but what they could do to make this, this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history.
They brought with them courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom. We all came from different lands but we shared the same values, the same dream…
I want more than anything I’ve ever wanted, to have an administration that will, through its actions, at home and in the international arena, let millions of people know that Miss Liberty still “lifts her lamp beside the golden door.”
Through our international broadcasting stations — the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the others — let us send, loud and clear, the message that this generation of Americans intends to keep that lamp shining; that this dream, that this dream the last best hope of man on earth, this nation under God, shall not perish from the earth.
We will instead carry on the building of an American economy that once again holds forth real opportunity for all, we shall continue to be a symbol of freedom and guardian of the eternal values that so inspired those who came to this port of entry.
Let us pledge to each other, with this Great Lady looking on, that we can, and so help us God, we will make America great again.
Some of the cut phrases were purely grammatical, so we can skip those. But what of the rest?
“They came to build,” Reagan said — but the commercial did not. It had “ambition” and the values of “neighborhood” and “peace,” and “all came from different lands but … shared the same values, the same dreams.”
One major stereotype is that illegal immigrants who come to the United States in this day and age have no interest in doing better for the country. After all, the government under President Barack Obama had helped them but not taught them. People are generally the same all over, but governments and government policies change and how immigrants are treated today is vastly different to how immigrants were treated a century ago.
It’s the usual liberal philosophy that the government must help people through welfare, food stamps, free medicine — what have you. It’s the embodiment of a nanny state, making people dependent on government. Conservatives, on the other hand, have different principles, principles Reagan deeply believed in and practiced.
If the stereotype of non-English-speaking immigrants is true, then which philosophy would they want to get behind? Again, “they came to build,” Reagan had said in front of the Statue of Liberty. Do the people coming illegally to America today from Central and South America or from the Middle East want to build — or be taken care by a pandering government?
Simply put, there is no comparison between the illegal immigrants of today and the legal immigrants of which Reagan spoke.
Politically, the two periods here are also very different. Mainly, Syrian refugees and such are coming from wartorn lands. From Africa and South America, they flee from poverty. But to compare this to Reagan’s years is a false equivalent.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union had an iron grip on Eastern Europe. Today, there is no Soviet Union, no grand or global ideological threat to freedom (we haven’t heard from ISIS in a while). Economic migration like that hitting Europe is much different from the troubles Eastern Europeans fled decades ago to come to America.
As president in 1986, however, Reagan was in the heat of debate about illegal immigrants, a fact that Ed Meese, his former attorney general, noted some years ago.
In an article published during President George W. Bush’s administration, Meese flatly declared that the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to an estimated four million aliens, “did not solve our illegal immigration problem.”
There was widespread fraud even as estimates “far exceeded projections,” Meese wrote of the measure that was known in the media’s shorthand as Simpson-Mazzoli, the Republican and Democrat who were its primary sponsors.
Further, the 1986 measure was based on a compromise that exchanged legalization of longstanding immigrants with a financial fine to go for increased border security. All had to learn English, pass health exams, and have no felonies and no more than two misdemeanors on their records back home. In addition, males of age had to register for the U.S. Selective Service and employers who hired illegal immigrants would be sanctioned.
Barely any of this happened. Clearly, the border security problem did not go away. There was, in Meese’s words, “a failure of political will” in sanctioning employers, too. Those who did not apply for citizenship still stayed in the country. Even so, many were genuine political refugees, fleeing communism in Cuba and Nicaragua, and the threat of communism in El Salvador.
The 1986 law failed and Meese contended that Reagan, who firmly believed in freedom and second chances in America, would have regretted this fact. It must also be noted that Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, failed to enforce much of Simpson-Mazolli.
For the record, liberals often falsely and inaccurately quote Reagan’s farewell address, in which he explained what he meant about the “shining city.” Yes, America was a nation of immigrants, but liberals fail to note his city had “walls” and “a door.”
Reagan’s shining city did not have open borders. And many of Reagan’s policies were designed to strengthen the economic and political conditions in other countries, so native citizens would not feel the need to flee their countries.
Let us also note that many of those who today celebrate this ad, mainly the leftists, would agree with those who called Reagan a racist during his life. If he was, why would he note the immigrants’ importance in American history?
Also, the Founding Fathers have been hit with the same accusations of racism, plus allegations of slaughtering Native-Americans with a genocidal fervor. So, some may figure, let’s praise an ad celebrating these same “immigrants” on the Fourth of July.
Would Ronald Reagan support the freedom and asylum of the illegal immigrant? Or would he expose and fight the present-day threats to national sovereignty and put the safety of America first? Again, the only person who can answer that is Reagan himself. Speculation is just that; what is indisputable is that today’s world is substantially different from that of his presidency.
Reagan once defined his idea of liberty as “maximum freedom consistent with law and order.” If Americans are living in fear of being killed by an illegal immigrant, that is not freedom; and if mayhem is occurring on the border, that is not law and order.
Reagan believed in borders, in earned American citizenship. Reagan did not believe in breaking the law to get ahead.
Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and presidential historian. He has written four books on President Ronald Reagan, along with his latest book, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,”  about the early career of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois, the 40th president’s alma mater. He also wrote the critically acclaimed “December 1941.” Scott Mauer is a research assistant for Craig Shirley.