Politics & Policy

Reform Immigration for All Religions

Immigrants at Ellis Island in New York, 1905. (Lewis W. Hine/Getty)

As has been his way since entering the presidential race, Donald Trump’s rhetoric has gotten ahead of his reason. Following news that one of the shooters in last week’s San Bernardino terrorist attack was a Pakistani immigrant, Trump is calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” We should not go down this path.

There should be no religious test for immigration, something that would run against the grain of the country’s commitment to religious tolerance (although religion can enter into the question of what refugees to accept, because religious minorities — such as Christians in the Middle East today — are often subject to unique persecution). Nor do we want to communicate hostility to all Muslims when Muslims already in the United States are overwhelmingly law-abiding, and when there are many Muslims overseas who are on our side in the War on Terror and have taken great risks to stand up against radicalism. Consider, for instance, Iraqi interpreters who worked with us at enormous personal peril to fight the precursor to ISIS.

But the United States obviously has a right to control its own borders (which is why Trump’s proposal wouldn’t violate the Constitution, as some of his critics allege), and it should be doing so with more discernment than it does now. The fact is that American immigration policy effectively runs on autopilot. Between 1992 and 2001, the number of Muslim immigrants arriving annually in the United States doubled, from 50,000 to 100,000 per year, without anyone explicitly deciding to adopt this policy. It was largely the result of our senseless chain-migration rules, which allow immigrants already resident in the U.S. to bring in members of their extended families. By 2011, there were 2.75 million Muslims in the country, 1.7 million of them legal permanent residents.

#share#While the United States has proved vastly more competent than Europe in assimilating Muslim immigrants, the prospect of European-style ghettoization is real, as is the possibility that more terrorists, like Tashfeen Malik, could exploit the immigration system to find their way to American shores. The United States also has struggled to prevent jihadist sympathies from developing among the American-born children of Muslim immigrants — a problem plaguing the Twin Cities, from which 60 young men and women have decamped to join terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa. And regarding the troubling sentiments of a non-trivial number of Muslims overseas, Trump is correct.

If even a fraction of Muslims overseas have jihadist sympathies, the likelihood that some of them will find their way into the United States obviously increases as long as American immigration policy follows its present course (a course that does not make sense for other reasons, including the effect of low-skilled immigration on the cost of our extensive welfare state, the economic pressure it puts on low-skilled workers who are already here, and the difficulty of assimilating the large population we keep welcoming).

#related#What to do? First, reduce overall levels of legal immigration, eliminate the visa lottery, and get chain migration under control. Second, pay more attention to the ideology of applicants. Immigration applications to the United States during the Cold War required certain ideological assurances — and so do immigration applications today, all of which demand that an applicant be “attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the same.” This requirement should be strengthened.

Although it is being forgotten in the understandable outrage over Trump’s proposal, no one has a right to immigrate to the United States, and American citizens, through their representatives, should determine what immigration regime is in their own best interests. We should be refashioning our immigration system so that it accords with our national security, our economic needs, and our assimilationist ethic. We hope that the other Republican candidates will take up this challenge and, unlike a certain hysterical real-estate mogul, develop a sober, serious strategy toward that end.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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