We have indeed arrived at another time for choosing. We must answer one question: Will we advance liberty or sound its retreat?

The emotional response to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration begs us to pick a side. Protest in solidarity with the immigrant. Hold the line against terrorism. Open the border. Build a wall. If only it were that simple.

We’re a nation of immigrants and simultaneously a nation of laws. Both concepts are critical to our identity as Americans and a source of conflict when we prioritize one over the other.

My first job out of law school was working for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on immigration issues. At the time, there was no hotter issue before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Sessions never wavered on his insistence that immigration laws be enforced. That experience shaped many of my views on immigration policy.

One president summed up the core of Sessions’ immigration philosophy quite eloquently. “It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.”

That was President Bill Clinton’s perspective during the State of the Union in 1995. It’s shared by millions of Americans today.

But immigration policy isn’t merely an issue of national security and law enforcement. It must complement our highest ideals as a beacon for liberty in the world. The downtrodden, broken and forgotten—they must matter to us here at home and abroad.

Ronald Reagan conceded that our “shining city on a hill” might need walls eventually. If there had to be walls, he said, “the walls [should have] doors and the doors [should be] open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” He recognized the nuances of our national identity.

At this point, it shouldn’t come as a shock that President Trump intends to follow through with his campaign promises. Regrettably, he’s relied heavily on our fears in shaping his immigration ideas, particularly when it comes to refugees.

It was a winning election strategy; it just isn’t the way to make America great again.

We must secure our borders, streamline our vetting process, and enforce our laws. Where we disagree over immigration laws, we have a clear process for changing them.

Even if we make our already challenging immigration and asylum review even tougher and enforce laws President Barack Obama ignored, much larger questions loom. Will we risk some of our safety to rescue a shell-shocked child from a bombed-out city in Syria? Are we willing to brave potential attack to shelter the Coptic Christian in Libya who refuses to recant her faith before ISIS?

My answer is unequivocal: Yes.

Our nation is great, in large part, because we’ve continually aspired to ideals more significant than self-preservation. The American president demanded that the Berlin Wall come down, and I saw it happen on my television in 1989. I still hear the words of my football coach, Jimmy Gentry, as he tearfully recounted the story of liberating the Dachau concentration camp as a soldier with the 42nd Rainbow Division. I live in a state where so many sacrificed their safety and very lives to fight the evils of racism in hopes that others might have the fullest measure of American opportunity.

We must never allow those who would do us harm to force our ideals into retreat. The whole point of being that shining city on a hill is for people to see us, take heart and continue the struggle for freedom throughout the world.

The alternative is to let liberty’s light go dim, batten down the hatches and hope nobody hurts us because we no longer pose a threat to their tyrannical aspirations. That simply is not who we are or ever should be.

The path to advance liberty will not be easy, but it is worth our labor to remember we’re a nation of laws and immigrants. President Reagan eloquently put the choice now before us in his own way:

We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.

Image by Victor Maschek

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