“We are a nation of immigrants. We must close the backdoor of illegal immigration so that we can keep open the front door of legal immigration.” That’s how former Republican Congressman and Vice Presidential nominee Jack Kemp succinctly captured what was once one of the key defining policies of the Republican Party. The GOP used to champion increased legal immigration, even as it fought illegal immigration.
But Donald Trump rejects this conservative idea and the all-American tradition behind it. Instead, he adopts a narrow-minded, nativist policy viewpoint that shuns all forms of immigration — legal and illegal. Rather than embrace America as a nation of immigrants and the conservative tradition of supporting legal immigration, Trump instead follows the 19th century xenophobic Know Nothing Party in opposition to all immigration.
While the Statue of Liberty stands for the wonderful spirit of humanity yearning to breathe free in America, Trump speaks about building walls and suffocating isolation from the world. He suspended the successful H1-B visa program that allows highly educated immigrants to help U.S. companies grow and maintain America’s technological leadership in the world. Trump’s anti-immigrant devotion to isolationism leads him to force children away from their parents at the border. He seeks to kick out ‘Dreamers’ — the innocent individuals brought to the U.S. as children who know no country other than America. If that were not enough, Trump follows up with crude, reckless comments that immigrants are “animals” and “rapists.” His anti-immigrant approach bears a closer relationship to the nationalist despots in Turkey or Hungary or China than America. Conservative leaders of the past must be looking down and weeping.
Conservatives’ traditional championing of personal freedom and individual liberty always included deep-rooted support for legal immigration to the United States. In his final speech as president, Ronald Reagan specifically celebrated America’s proud immigration heritage. “We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation.” Reagan understood that immigration is not a theory to be tolerated, but a fundamental part of the fabric that makes us Americans.
George W. Bush understood Reagan’s belief in legal immigration and understood the rich value immigrants bring to the United States. Bush rightly hoped, “May we never forget that immigration is a blessing and a strength.” He made comprehensive immigration reform one of the key policy goals of his presidency. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, was the leading proponent of legal immigration reform in the Senate. Like Reagan and Bush, McCain understood the American, and conservative, legacy of championing expanded immigration opportunities enriches our national dynamic.
Reagan, unlike Trump, recognized, “You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk… [but] anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American… This I believe is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness.”
As Trump firmly turns his back on immigration, he looks less like President Reagan or President Bush, and a lot more like President Millard Fillmore, who governed as a Whig before becoming the nativist, xenophobic Know-Nothing Party’s presidential nominee in 1856. The Know-Nothing Party, like President Trump’s version of the Republican Party, was more concerned with vast conspiracy theories and infiltration by religious minorities (back then it was Catholics, now it’s Muslims) than the actual crises facing the country in the years before the Civil War.
Trump should take note: Unlike Reagan and Bush, Fillmore lasted just one term.
Charles Djou is a former Republican Congressman who served on the House Armed Services and Budget Committees. He is an Afghanistan war veteran and the child of American immigrants.
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