NAMESAKES

A Muslim Woman Brought Here by Reagan. Pushed Away by Trump.

Her family came to America thanks to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration act, and they’ve been sympathetic to the GOP ever since—until this election.

03.20.16 4:00 AM ET

The timing of the death of Nancy Reagan just as Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Republican nomination seems increasingly unstoppable, is particularly painful for one Muslim lady in Brooklyn, Farhana, and her family. 

That is because Farhana is not the name she goes by; she goes by Nancy—a nickname her family gave her in 1990, a year after she was born, and the year her family moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh. It’s customary for Bengalis to give their children more English-sounding nicknames that family and friends will use throughout their lives.

Her name was given in honor of President Ronald Reagan, as his 1986 immigration act enabled Farhana’s family to join their father, who was already living in the U.S. Her uncle named his son, Nancy’s cousin, “Reagan,” for the same reason. And so in 1990 the Muslims “Nancy” and “Reagan” moved to Brooklyn.

President Reagan’s 1986 act did include both tighter security at the Mexican border and stricter penalties for employers hiring undocumented workers. But it also included a provision that paved the way for any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982 to be eligible for amnesty.

In his signing statement Reagan said: "The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans."

Those words ultimately changed the path of Nancy’s family’s future. Today she teaches public school English in Brooklyn, and her husband works at a tech startup. Because of what they owe Reagan, Nancy’s father (and his family) are always open to voting Republican. One person they will never vote for, however, given his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, is Mr. Trump. 

“For many years, Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country,” Trump has said, typical of the way he portrays immigrants.

It’s safe to say that Reagan would have been at odds with that rhetoric. Reagan’s pro-immigrant views were evident throughout his time in office. As he said during a televised debate in 1984 with Walter Mondale (whose campaign against Reagan Trump donated to), "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally." Note that Reagan used the word amnesty. Today’s leading Republican candidates use the word as a slur.

Trump has been touting mutual admiration between himself and the Gipper. “He felt very good about me,” The Donald says, and for “proof” there’s a photo circulating of the two shaking hands in a receiving line. It’s unlikely that Reagan felt very good about Trump’s donations to the Gipper’s opponents President Jimmy Carter and Mondale for starters.  And their receiving line relationship is more closely akin to the exchange between Maximus and Proximo in Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator” movie: “Maximus: You knew Marcus Aurelius? Proximi: I didn’t say I knew him, I said he touched me the shoulder once!”

Throughout her life, Nancy has always introduced herself as “my given name is Farhana, but my friends call me Nancy, like Nancy Reagan,” and then she explains why. It’s an exchange that during parent-teacher conferences, and during the hundreds of other interactions she’s has in the immigrant-dominated streets of Brooklyn, that opens the minds of many about what the Republican party stands for. Sadly if Trump is the Republican nominee, that conversation will get all that more uncomfortable for Nancy.

Daniel Freedman is the co-founder of a Baltimore-based startup and he is the co-author of "The Black Banners" and blogs at www.freedthinker.com.