My late father was born in England and immigrated to America. In 1948, 22-year-old Robert sailed from Southampton on the Marine Tiger, a troop transport which was later converted to a passenger ship. He didn’t care about soccer or cricket, by the way. He loved baseball, especially the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But that’s not my point. My point is he came by boat. The Polynesians came by boat, in double-hulled canoes to the Hawaiian Islands. The Pilgrims came by boat, in one called the Mayflower. And millions of African slaves came by boat, as cargo in miserable, unsanitary, horrifying conditions.
I can’t remember the first time I heard the term “boat people” and couldn’t decide whether the term was condescending until Ronald Reagan told a story in his legendary Farewell Address about a big ship, a refugee and a sailor:
“It was back in the early '80s,” said Reagan, “at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, 'Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.'”
This was, Reagan said, a small moment with a big meaning. What’s the big meaning for us today as thousands of unaccompanied children arrive at our southern border? I believe it has to do with Reagan’s vision for America. It has to do with “the shining city on a hill,” the phrase Reagan appropriated from John Winthrop, one of the Pilgrims who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century.
According to Reagan’s vision, the shining city was “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And 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.”
By Speaker John Boehner’s own admission, there is a crisis at our southern border, a humanitarian crisis involving thousands of children. These are not boat people with the will and the heart. These are children. These children are refugees. And these refugees are very lucky to get here alive. Speaker Boehner and President Obama blame each other for their inability to solve the problem. They’re both right, of course, which makes it embarrassing to watch and impossible to reconcile with Reagan’s vision.
Jack Godwin is an award-winning political scientist whose appeal spans the political spectrum. He is the author of three books on politics, most recently "The Office Politics Handbook," and is now writing his first novel, a political thriller set at the end of the Cold War, the golden age of spy fiction. To view more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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