What Reagan knew about immigration

Story highlights

  • Ali Noorani's parents came to U.S. in 1971, were supporters of Reagan, who empathized with their concerns, priorities, dreams
  • He says Reagan spoke of "shining city upon a hill" with doors "open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here"
  • Trump, Cruz, Walker, others speak of changing Constitution to keep immigrants out; Americans know better, he says

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund, an organization based in Washington that advocates for the value of immigrants. This commentary coincides with a major ad buy the organization is undertaking on CNN and other outlets ahead of the CNN Debate. Follow Ali Noorani on Twitter @anoorani. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)I remember the first time my mom took me to the voting booth.

The drive to the local high school in the family station wagon. The smell of the cafeteria turned into a polling station. The feeling of the heavy blue curtains. And, finally, the imposing contraption my mother used to mark her vote for president of the United States: Ronald W. Reagan.
Ali Noorani
My parents immigrated to the United States in 1971. They came, like millions of immigrants before and after them, for a better life. And in 1978, they were proud to become U.S. citizens.
    My parents voted and followed the news, but I didn't grow up in a political family. We were like practically every other American family, navigating the daily cycle of school, work -- life.
    While I may not have completely understood the politics of the moment, I remember it was an unsettling time. The economy was struggling, the threat of nuclear war never seemed far off, and there was always a subtle tension to what you saw and heard on television in the evening.
    In Reagan, my mother helped elect a Republican who connected with people; who empathized with their dreams, fears and aspirations; who inspired all of us to be our better selves. When he spoke of a "shining city upon a hill," he painted a picture of an America that welcomed everyone.
    How times have changed.
    The front-runner for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump, has brought out a dark side to America's immigration debate that for decades has been buried far below the mainstream.
    "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," Trump said in June, in announcing his run for president. (Think about that.)
    "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us," he continued. "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."
    Fast forward to August 24: "If I'm elected, they're going to be out of there Day One. We're going to get them the hell out of our country."
    And Trump only outdid himself in a September 10 conference call with Alabama Republican activists, during which he claimed he would be able to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in "18 months to two years, if properly handled."
    Trump may be egregious, but he isn't alone.
    "We should end granting automatic birthright citizenship to the children of those who are here illegally," Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said August 19, echoing calls to turn away from nothing less than the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
    "Yeah, absolutely," Gov. Scott Walker replied to a reporter's question August 17 regarding birthright citizenship. He later changed course, as he did again when reporters questioned his calling a border wall with Canada a "legitimate issue for us to look at."
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    These are not quotes from people who inspire great things. They are quotes from people who depend on fear to divide Americans and incite -- not inspire -- voters.
    Reagan's shining city upon a hill was "a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace."
    It was a city protected and safe. As Reagan put it, "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."
    It was a city my parents wanted to be a part of when they came to America. It is a city tens of millions of immigrants are proud to live in and contribute to every day. Sadly, this is not a city some candidates for president want to represent.
    Yet, in this day and age, they do not have a choice. America as it exists cannot be deported, cannot be "taken back."
    In today's America we stand shoulder to shoulder, no matter where you were born, and work hard to make our communities and our country better. That's because, in our hearts, we know that America is better when we focus on freedom, not fear.