On Vetting Immigrants

Donald Trump gave a foreign policy speech yesterday where he outlined some of his key proposals to expand the “ideological” vetting of immigrants. Here is the oh-so-serious mainstream summary of the proposals in the New York Times; and here is a better written and more insightful take by Milo Yiannopoulos.

Needless to say, the proposals immediately attracted over-the-top reactions. I knew it wouldn’t take long before somebody called them un-American, and MSNBC (of course) nicely obliged; a commentator quickly commented that “this is the single most un-American thing I have ever heard in my life.” And one of the opinionators at the Washington Post opined (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing) that Trump’s ideas were “crazier than crazy.”

I’ve been interested in the historical precedents of vetting immigrants for a long time, and I was actually planning to write a couple of pages about that in We Wanted Workers. But in the interest of keeping the book short and accessible, almost all of that account quickly went by the wayside. If all those pundits were to just do a couple of minutes of googling before reacting, it would become very apparent very quickly that immigrant vetting has a very long tradition in American history. In 1645, the Massachusetts Bay Colony restricted the entry of paupers. One of my favorite examples is the 1917 Immigration Act, which listed the many traits that would make potential immigrants inadmissible, including:

All idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons; persons who have had one or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority; persons with chronic alcoholism; paupers; professional beggars; vagrants; persons afflicted with tuberculosis in any form or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease; persons not comprehended within any of the foregoing excluded classes who are found to be and are certified by the examining surgeon as being mentally or physically defective, such physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living; persons who have been convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; polygamists, or persons who practice polygamy or believe in or advocate the practice of polygamy; anarchists, or persons who believe in or advocate the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States, or of all forms of law, or who disbelieve in or are opposed to organized government, or who advocate the assassination of public officials, or who advocate or teach the unlawful destruction of property; persons who are members of or affiliated with any organization entertaining and teaching disbelief in or opposition to organized government, or who advocate or teach the duty, necessity, or propriety of the unlawful assaulting or killing of any officer or officers..of the Government of the United States or of any other organized government.

Even a century ago we were already filtering out people who had unwanted social traditions (such as polygamy) and had put in place ideological filters against anarchists, persons who advocate the destruction of property, and persons who believe in overthrowing the Government of the United States.

One can also get a lot of insight into the kinds of traits we do not want by looking at the application that green card applicants fill out today (Form I-485). Among the many filtering questions are:

Have you EVER, in or outside the United States:

a. Knowingly committed any crime of moral turpitude or a drug-related offense for which you have not been arrested?

Have you EVER:

a. Within the past 10 years been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution, or intend to engage in such activities in the future?

b. Engaged in any unlawful commercialized vice, including, but not limited to, illegal gambling?

d. Illicitly trafficked in any controlled substance, or knowingly assisted, abetted, or colluded in the illicit trafficking of any controlled substance?

Have you EVER engaged in, conspired to engage in, or do you intend to engage in, or have you ever solicited membership or funds for, or have you 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?

Do you intend to engage in the United States in:

a. Espionage?

b. Any activity a purpose of which is opposition to, or the control or overthrow of, the Government of the United States, by force, violence, or other unlawful means?

Have you EVER been a member of, or in any way affiliated with, the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party?

Did you, during the period from March 23, 1933 to May 8, 1945, in association with either the Nazi Government of Germany or any organization or government associated or allied with the Nazi Government of Germany, ever order, incite, assist, or otherwise participate in the persecution of any person because of race, religion, national origin, or political opinion?

And, finally, here’s part of the oath that immigrants who wish to become citizens of the United States must recite at the naturalization ceremony:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty…; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.

Is it really that big a stretch to add questions that would expand the filtering to reflect political and national security conditions today?

Going through the detailed filters in current law reminds me of the Renewal of Baptismal Promises that Catholics sometime hear at Mass. On those occasions, the priest asks a series of questions (Do you reject Satan? Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son?), to which the participants respond “I do.” These questions essentially define what it means to be a Catholic. The immigration filters play a very similar role: They help to strengthen the social and political fabric of our country and they help to define the common set of values that distinguishes us as Americans.

So the next time you hear that Trump’s proposal for immigrant vetting are un-American, the correct response is that they are as American as apple pie. And the next time you hear that Trump’s proposals are crazier than crazy, the correct response is that–given the mess the world is in–it is the notion that we should not vet immigrants more carefully that is certifiably insane.

Author: George Borjas

I am a Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.