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Invoking Ronald Reagan, new TV ad targets GOP presidential hopefuls’ immigration comments

Images of former President Ronald Reagan . (Sebastian Payne, for The Washington Post)

This item has been updated and corrected.

An immigration reform group backed by business, political and religious leaders plans to air a hard-hitting television commercial that juxtaposes the words of three Republican presidential candidates against those of a revered GOP figure: former president Ronald Reagan.

The National Immigration Forum Action Fund will air the ad in the coming days on CNN before, during and after the presidential debate that the network is hosting Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. The six-figure ad buy also includes time on MSNBC and Fox News Channel during their pre- and post-debate coverage, according to a spokesman for the group who shared details of the ad buy first with The Washington Post.

The ad calls out candidates Donald Trump, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), all of whom have voiced support for ending birthright citizenship or have suggested that undocumented immigrants from Mexico are rapists or other kinds of criminals.

Their words are mixed with clips from Reagan's January 1989 farewell address, in which he harked back to his long-held belief that the United States is a "shining city on a hill" that should be welcoming to all people.

"I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life," he said. "God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace."

The ad then flash-forwards to "Today."

"They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists," Trump said. "If I’m elected, they’re gonna get out of there Day One."

Walker is heard being asked whether he believes — as Trump does — that birthright citizenship should be ended. "Yeah. Absolutely," he said.

Cruz adds: "I’ve said we should end birthright citizenship."

Then, Trump again: "I will build a great, great wall."

The ad concludes with Reagan's words: "In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans. 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. That’s how I saw it — and see it still."

The general gist of the ad is clear: Some of today's Republicans strongly disagree with the former president they all say they revere. Invoking Reagan in an ad that will air during the CNN debate is especially notable, given that the GOP candidates will be gathered Wednesday night at the library dedicated to his presidency.

The ad comes as many Republican leaders — and some of the party's presidential candidates — are increasingly concerned that fiery comments about immigrants could further damage the party's image with minority voters. Several polls this summer have shown that Trump especially is broadly unpopular among Hispanics and that the GOP's overall image has suffered within the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc.

[Poll finds Hispanic disapproval of Trump rhetoric on illegal immigrants]

And the new ad mirrors another one being aired by the Latino Victory Project — a group co-founded by Democratic National Committee Chairman Henry Muñoz and the actress Eva Longoria. The group confirmed Friday that it is launching a campaign in Colorado and Nevada aimed at grabbing the attention of Hispanic voters.

In the LVP ad, actors read lines said by Trump, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal about undocumented immigrants. Like Trump, Bush and Jindal have defended the term "anchor babies," a term deemed offensive by many Hispanics.

[Latino group — not conservatives — behind new anti-Trump ads]

Trump and Cruz have stood by their previous comments on birthright citizenship, but Walker has shifted course. He said in mid-August that he agreed with Trump that the 14th Amendment granting birthright citizenship should be repealed, but he later backtracked.

"My point is any discussion that goes beyond securing the border and enforcing laws are things that should be a red flag to voters out there who for years have heard lip service from politicians and are understandably angry," Walker told ABC News in late August as he clarified his position.

The National Immigration Forum Action Fund is the separate political arm of a group that was founded at the height of the 2013 immigration reform debate and united an unlikely alliance of business, religious and law enforcement leaders.

Many backers of comprehensive immigration reform believed that the National Immigration Forum's "Bibles, Badges Business" alliance would help win over skeptical Republican lawmakers or at least provide them political cover. Despite their work, immigration legislation failed to advance in the Republican-controlled House last year.

That group — whose board includes Laura Foote Reiff, a top executive at Greenberg Traurig; Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto; Jeb Bush Jr., the son of the presidential candidate; and Louis Malfaro, a top leader of the American Federation of Teachers — didn't pay for the new ads.

Instead, the National Immigration Forum Action Fund — led by Craig Regelbrugge, a major Republican agricultural advocate; Larry Kleinman, a health-care executive; and Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute — produced the ad. But the group counts several notable allies, including businessman Steve Case, tax activist Grover Norquist and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), all of whom issued statements in support of the new campaign.

Jeb Bush Jr. and the two Miami-area congressmen are actively backing Jeb Bush's presidential campaign. But the ad they are supporting doesn't mention Bush's defense of the term "anchor babies."

A preview of the ad came in a Washington Post op-ed published on Friday by Case, the co-founder of America Online and CEO of Revolution. He wrote that Trump's rhetoric and ideas on immigration "are too extreme and his language too caustic."

"The argument for standing up to the current anti-immigration fever goes beyond purely economic considerations," he added. "The United States is an immigrant nation. Nearly all of us are immigrants or the offspring of someone who immigrated here. Some of our ancestors were welcomed, others were greeted by earlier waves of hostility. Yes, we’re a nation of laws, but we’re also a nation of opportunity, and a nation that prides itself on welcoming the tired and poor to our shores."

[Business leaders must speak out against Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric]

Reagan's most notable work on immigration reform came in 1986, when he signed legislation that required employers to verify workers' immigration status and made it illegal to knowingly recruit and hire undocumented immigrants. But the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, as it was known, also granted legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who had entered the country before Jan. 1, 1982, and had lived in the country lawfully.

Most Republican lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates now consider the law ineffective and a jarring example of government-backed "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the National Immigration Forum is paying for the ad. The National Immigration Forum Action Fund — a separate nonprofit political entity established by group members is paying for the ad.