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On immigration, we need the call to action of JFK and the idealism of Reagan

Taking care of 50 migrants doesn’t solve America’s immigration crisis.

It's amazing to consider how far the party of Donald Trump has slunk from Ronald Reagan’s idealism, especially on the matter of immigration.MIKE SARGENT

Democrats can still get misty-eyed over the “Ask not what your country can do for you” riff from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. But today’s Republicans are devoid of any such sentimentality when it comes to their one-time icon, Ronald Reagan.

It’s no longer news to point this out. But it’s still amazing to consider how far the party of Donald Trump — with assistance from acolytes like Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Governor Greg Abbott of Texas — has slunk from Reagan’s idealism, especially on the matter of immigration.

It’s left to those of us who never voted for Reagan to point out that in his last speech as president, delivered on Jan. 19, 1989, he said: “Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage, the compact with our parents, our grandparents and our ancestors. It is that lady who gives us our great and special place in the world. For it’s the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond. Other countries may seek to compete with us, but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close.”

In reality, the picture of America as a beacon of freedom and opportunity was never as pretty as Reagan painted it and at many times in American history, it was much uglier. The PBS documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” is a reminder of just how heartless Americans can be toward those seeking refuge from a life-or-death scenario. As Jewish people from across Europe tried to escape Hitler, this country turned its back on them. The refusal to accept the 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis out of Hamburg, Germany, that is documented in Episode 2 painfully highlights the country’s cruel indifference to their plight.


The Trump era mirrors previous periods of callous inhumanity toward desperate people. It began on that June day in 2015 when Trump announced his presidential bid and accused Mexico of sending criminals and rapists to America. Then came the pledge to build a border wall and the ongoing demonization of those who come here hopefully, but unlawfully. It has led to where we are today, with politicians like DeSantis and Abbott scoring political points by treating fellow humans as chattel to be delivered to the doorsteps of bleeding heart liberals. But it did not happen in a vacuum.


It’s easy to blame Trump & Co. for pushing the buttons of fear of others with different skin color and religious beliefs. But this is a crisis that has not been dealt with by any political leader in any meaningful way and that includes President Biden. Meanwhile, the collective national indifference toward the consequences seems fairly bipartisan to me — and not much different from America’s attitude toward those desperate souls who were trying to escape Hitler.

What about Massachusetts and its outpouring of compassion toward 50 migrants who arrived last week without warning on Martha’s Vineyard? To be honest, the self-righteous back-patting that’s going on here right now seems excessive. Providing decent care on that small scale, while admirable, is not the same as dealing with thousands of people who show up daily along the Texas border. It’s fine to sue DeSantis and others involved in the so-called relocation of those 50 migrants from Venezuela for a “premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting” them. But it doesn’t solve the underlying border problem that triggered this cruel political theater.


Meanwhile, let’s not forget that Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat who is running for governor, seems to have backed away from a request that she open a criminal investigation into the matter and has had little to say about it. No one wants to stir the anti-immigration pot the Republicans are cooking — including here in Massachusetts, where opponents of a new law that allows people who are here unlawfully to get a driver’s license were able to collect more than 100,000 signatures, which was twice the amount needed to get a repeal question on the November ballot.

The inspirational call to action of a JFK and the idealism of a Reagan are missing at every level of American politics — and both are sorely missed.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.