There’s Nothing Wrong with Carefully Screening Immigrants

by Charles C. W. Cooke

In reaction to Donald Trump’s “extreme vetting” proposal, Mark Krikorian writes:

Questions about the practical implementation of such a proposal are legitimate, if overblown. Trump obviously didn’t go into detail about the specific bureaucratic means of trying to screen out enemies of our constitutional order, but there are a number of ways to go about it. The first thing to keep in mind is that Trump’s speech referred to immigrants, not visitors, who are much more numerous. As I wrote in December, if a tourist from Saudi Arabia or business traveler from Pakistan think it’s good to behead blasphemers, that doesn’t really matter to us because they’re just passing through and not joining our society. But people being granted permanent residence — or even long-term “temporary” status, such as foreign students or H-1B workers — are joining our society, and we have a responsibility to keep them out if they reject our basic values.

Mark and I often have opposing views on the question of immigration. But on this specific matter we are in absolute agreement. In fact, I must admit that I am a little confused at the manner in which many members of the commentariat have reacted here. As anybody who has been through the immigration process knows, the United States already screens both visitors and immigrants, and it has done so for a long time. Moreover, by requiring would-be citizens to pass a mandatory civics test, the U.S. also screens those who would join the voting ranks and the jury pools. Are we to assume from the rank horror with which Trump’s proposal has been met that all of these systems are wrong from the ground up? Is the screening of foreigners to be universally outré?

I would certainly hope not, and I say that as somebody who has been “inconvenienced” by vetting more than most.

POLL: Should Immigrants to the U.S. Be Carefully Screened?

Below, if you’ll indulge me, is a quick recap of the oversight I’ve received over the last few years. As you’ll see, the closer I move to citizenship, the more ideological the questions become:

Before I moved to the United States, a condition of my inclusion in the visa waiver program was that I make a series of promises whenever I traveled here. Among them: That I had not been “arrested or convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude,” and that I had not been involved “in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies.”

When I applied for my first visa, I had to to list every country that I had visited during the last five years, and then to vow that I had not “served in, been a member of, or been involved with a paramilitary unit, vigilante unit, rebel group, guerrilla group, or insurgent organization”; that I had no intention of engaging in “espionage, sabotage, export control violations, or any other illegal activity”; that I did not want to “engage in terrorist activities” or to “provide financial assistance or other support to terrorists”; that I had never been “responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violation of religious freedom”; and that I had never “committed, ordered, invited, assisted or otherwise participated in extrajudicial killings, political killings, or other acts of violence,” “torture,” or “genocide.”

When, a few years later, I applied for my green card, I had to submit to an FBI background check; to record my place of residence and my employer for the last five years; to list my “present and past membership in or affiliation with every organization, association, fund, foundation, party, club, society, or similar group in the United States or in other places since [my] 16th birthday” (and to include “the name of each organization, location, nature, and dates of membership”); to swear that I had never “knowingly committed any crime of moral turpitude,” “been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution,” or “conspired to engage in . . . or solicited membership or funds for, or . . . through any means ever assisted or provided any type of material support to any person or organization that has ever engaged or conspired to engage in sabotage, kidnapping, political assassination, hijacking, or any other form of terrorist activity”; to promise that I did not intend to engage in “any activity a purpose of which is opposition to, or the control of or overthrow of, the Government of the United States, by force, violence, or other unlawful means”; to confirm that I had not “ever been a member of, or in any way affiliated with, the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party”; to pledge that I would not “practice polygamy”; to guarantee that I had never “ordered, incited, called for, committed, assisted, helped with, or other participated in . . . limiting or denying any person’s ability to exercise religious beliefs”; and so on and so forth.

Next year — exactly one year from today, as it happens) — I will become a citizen of this country. And, before I do, I will be expected to demonstrate that I understand the principles on which it stands. As part of the obligatory citizenship test, I will be obliged to describe which rights are contained within the Constitution; to explain the structure of the American government; to define religious liberty; to outline the nature of the rules of law; to confirm what sort of economy the United States has (the correct answer, per USCIS, is “capitalist” or “market” economy); to exhibit a basic grasp of federalism; to understand the purpose and basis of the American revolution; and to convey a familiarity with the history of slavery, civil rights, and female suffrage.

And all of that is fine.

It is fine that the American federal government will expect me to understand the ins and outs of the American way of life before it lets me vote. Why? Because to be an “American” is not solely to commit to a place, but to cherish a beautiful collection of ideas, values, and principles that can only work in practice if universally understood. It is fine that the American federal government wanted to know whether I was a communist or a totalitarian before it let me in. Why? Because America is not a communist or totalitarian country, and, indeed, because communism and other totalitarian ideologies are wholly incompatible with the American conceptions of liberty, dignity, and equality under the law. And it is fine that the American federal government wanted to know if I’d ever been involved with organizations that would deprive people of their religious liberty. Why? Because Americans enjoy religious freedom, and because it would be a serious, disastrous problem if that ceased to be the case. Am I supposed to be offended by the idea that the federal government might make it even more clear to prospective Americans what the United States stands for?

There is nothing wrong with a little cultural imperialism when one’s culture is objectively good. And make no mistake: America’s culture is objectively good. I understand that it has become trendy of late to pretend that all cultures are equal, but they’re really, really not. Nations that are committed to religious freedom are better than their counterparts, and they should be celebrated as such. The same goes for nations that are dedicated to freedom of speech; for nations in which all people are equal under the law; for nations in which markets are permitted to operate; for nations in which power is separated and fractured; and so on and so forth. As an immigrant to America, I have no problem whatsoever with the idea that the immigration system should be set up for the benefit of the existing polity rather than for the benefit of those who wish to move here, and I have no issue whatsoever with the fear — expressed eloquently since Jefferson’s time — that if America fails to ensure that its newcomers are invested in “temperate liberty” it may eventually lose whatever it was that led emigrants to want to come here in the first place. When your country is dedicated to a proposition, fealty to that proposition matters enormously.

So often, the press presumes that any restrictions on immigration must be “anti-immigrant” in some way. This is a mistake. I am an immigrant, I like immigrants, and I think that, in moderation, America benefits from immigrants. But I also think that it is eminently reasonable for Americans to ask who is joining them, and on what basis. I don’t know whether Trump’s specific plan is workable, and I don’t know whether I’d like every single question he hopes to ask. As my readers will have gathered, he really isn’t my cup of tea. But I do know that there is nothing wrong with screening per se, and that there is nothing wrong with ideological screening either. On the contrary: If we want to continue to enjoy the blessings of liberty, it’s downright imperative.

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