Trump Should Remember Lincoln When Thinking About Immigration

Michael Lucchese

Right-wing media exploded earlier this month when President Trump appeared to have made a deal with congressional Democrats to enshrine the legal status of certain classes of undocumented aliens living in the United States.

Iowa representative Steve King tweeted that the President’s “base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair.” Many on the right are furiously arguing this is the worst moment of the Trump administration thus far.

On the contrary, if this deal truly explodes the President’s base, this could be one of the most shining moments of these early months of the Trump Presidency.

As a people, Americans should be open to immigration. The founders of our regime explicitly dedicated it to prove the proposition that all men are created equal. The race-baiting and fear-mongering of the demagogic “New Right” or fascistic alt-right undermines that dedication.

In an 1858 speech in Chicago, Abraham Lincoln argued a similar point. He believed America is great precisely because we’re so different from the sovereign peoples of Europe. Unlike them, he argued, we are devoted to a principle which is true at all times and in all places.

When [immigrants] look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment,” Lincoln said, “they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.

Lincoln’s words weren’t just campaign slogan to get elected–you know, like repeal and replace…I forget the rest.  In that speech, he expressed a principle which animated his statesmanship in even the most uncertain hours. When the going got tough, Lincoln stayed true to those ideals.

Take, for instance, Lincoln’s efforts against nativism. In the 1850s, the future of antislavery politics remained uncertain. The Republican Party was founded in 1854, but it by no means secured dominance in the North. Many Whigs were fleeing their collapsing party for the nativist Know-Nothing Party, which was dedicated in part to limiting immigration.

Lincoln worked intensely behind the scenes to prevent the rise of the Know-Nothings. Even in the face of the culture wars over slavery, he knew that surrendering ground to nativists would undermine the tradition of liberty which took root in this country.

“As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal,’” Lincoln wrote in a letter to a close friend. “We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty.”

A sovereign people possesses the right to regulate its country’s borders. Many well-meaning political figures and ordinary citizens make legitimate arguments for prudentially limiting immigration. However, that does not mean an “America First” immigration policy is one which closes our borders or isolates us from the wider world. Quite the opposite, in fact.

If Lincoln or the Founders were alive to witness the immigration debate that’s been so central to political life over the last two years, they would be shocked. Anti-immigration agitation is an affront to their entire project, and an informed citizenry ought to avoid such smears to their character.

The details of the President’s deal with the Democrats remain forthcoming. However, it appears that fortune handed him an opportunity to act like a statesman. Like Lincoln did in the 1850s, the President ought to cast the far right’s malicious influence aside and reach across the aisle for the common good. Twitter trolls and Reddit memers may not be very happy with it, but their voices do not speak for the whole American people or what our country stands for.

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