Love for Immigrants, but a Firm Sense of Limits: The Eloquent Complexity of Peggy Noonan

By Jerry Kammer on January 20, 2019

As this blog noted recently, Ronald Reagan compiled an inconsistent record on immigration. He spoke glowingly about his vision of the country as a city on a hill that could be entered by gates that were open to all those who wanted in. Yet he also supported the crackdown on illegal immigration mandated by the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which he signed into law in 1986. But that support fizzled as his business-friendly, anti-regulation instincts asserted themselves.

The writer of Reagan's farewell was Peggy Noonan, an elegant scribe who gracefully evoked hopeful wonder at great things and hushed admiration for great people. Who can forget the speech she wrote for Reagan to deliver at the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan delivered it beautifully before an audience that included many of the soldiers who fought there. More than a speech, it was a prayer of thanksgiving.

Said Reagan: "Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."

Noonan is a sentimentalist about immigration. In 2006 she wrote:

I love immigrants. That's not important or relevant, but it's where I start. I love them so much I often have the impulse to kiss their hands. I am not kidding. I love them because they are brave. They left their country and struggled their way to this one to get a better life. (It's good to remember that that's not an insult to us but a compliment.

But Noonan was one of seven children in a working-class family. That may help explain why that same column included this:

We are a sovereign nation operating under the rule of law. That, in fact, is why many immigrants come here. They come from places where the law, such as it is, is corrupt, malleable, limiting. Does it make sense to subvert our own laws to facilitate the entrance of those in pursuit of government by law? Whatever our sentiments and sympathies as individuals, America has the right, and the responsibility, to protect the integrity of its borders, to make the laws by which immigrants are granted entrance, and to enforce those laws. ... It's not all about who gets what vote, it's about continuing a system of laws that has allowed America to become, among many other things, a place immigrants want to come to. And it's about admitting immigrants in a coherent, orderly, legal manner, with an eye first to what America needs. That's how you continue a good thing, which is what we've had.

Later in 2006, Noonan wrote this:

The essential reason, I think, is that America's elites don't want America's borders closed. Businesses want low-wage workers; intellectuals are wed to global visions of cross-border prosperity; politicians want Hispanic loyalty and the Hispanic vote. It's not convenient for any of them to close the borders. If Americans on the ground are enduring difficulties over this, it's ... too bad. This is further eroding America's already eroding faith in its institutions. ... In the case of illegal immigration in America I think grandma would say, "Stop it. Build a wall. But put doors in the wall so when the problem is over, you can open the doors."

In 2007 Noonan wrote:

Here is the truth: America has never deported millions of people, and America will never deport millions of people. It's not what we do. It's not who we are. It's not who we want to be. The American people would never accept evening news pictures of sobbing immigrants being torn from their homes and put on a bus. We wouldn't accept it because we have hearts, and as much as we try to see history in the abstract, we know history comes down to the particular, to the sobbing child in the bus. We don't round up and remove.

In 2017, Noonan won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary with a packet of columns that included this elegant passage from the prior year, in which she mildly, if obliquely, rebuked many of those in her stratum of New York society:

I keep thinking of how Donald Trump got to be the very likely Republican nominee. There are many answers and reasons, but my thoughts keep revolving around the idea of protection. It is a theme that has been something of a preoccupation in this space over the years, but I think I am seeing it now grow into an overall political dynamic throughout the West.

There are the protected and the unprotected. The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.

The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful — those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. Again, they make public policy and have for some time.

I want to call them the elite to load the rhetorical dice, but let's stick with the protected.

They are figures in government, politics and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones. Their families function, their kids go to good schools, they've got some money. All of these things tend to isolate them, or provide buffers. Some of them — in Washington it is important officials in the executive branch or on the Hill; in Brussels, significant figures in the European Union — literally have their own security details.

Because they are protected they feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality. They're insulated from many of the effects of their own decisions.