clock menu more-arrow no yes

Donald Trump’s plan to subject immigrants to “ideological tests,” explained

A naturalization ceremony in Oakland, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty

In a speech Monday, Trump laid out an immigration policy that would make it much harder to enter the US — and harder still to move here. He suggested “extreme vetting” for any entrant to the US — from immigrants to tourists — and an “ideological test” for people who wanted to settle down in America for good.

Trump framed this as an act of love for America.

“Pride in our institutions, our history, and our values should be taught by parents and teachers, and impressed upon all who join our society,” he said during the speech. “Our system of government, and our American culture, is the best in the world and will produce the best outcomes for all who adopt it.”

None of this is new. For a century, America’s laws have been concerned with letting in only immigrants who’d uphold American values — though the importance of ideological tests has waxed and waned depending on how threatened the US feels at the time.

In putting belief in Islam on par with subscribing to communism during the Cold War, Trump suggests that belief in Islam is at odds with American values — something plenty of Americans (of all faiths) take issue with.

But scratch the surface of Trump’s boasting, and you’ll see fear that maybe America isn’t so great or so strong as he says it is after all — a fear that the American “melting pot” is actually broken. In Trump’s America, those American values are not strong enough to defend themselves from ideological threats.

Trump’s immigration policy isn’t primarily about security. It’s primarily about cultural assimilation.

As a matter of policy, Donald Trump set out two different proposals in Monday’s speech. As a matter of rhetoric, he did his best to blur the difference between the two.

What Trump actually proposed, according to his speech text, was this:

  1. Additional security screening (Trump called it “extreme vetting”) for anyone seeking to enter the US — permanently or temporarily, short-term or long-term, immigrant, tourist, or student.
  2. An “ideological screening test” for people who wanted to immigrate permanently to the United States.

On the face of it, the first of these is a national-security policy: It’s supposed to prevent people from entering the US to do it harm. The second is an immigration policy: It’s supposed to ensure, just as centuries of immigration policy have ensured, that only “suitable” people enter the US.

But Trump could barely talk about one without talking about the other. He emphasized that he was concerned with attitudes “beyond terrorism,” while also expressing concern with the “hundreds of thousands” of people the US admitted from the Middle East on temporary visas each year.

According to the text of Trump’s speech, the candidate proposed admitting “only those who we expect to flourish in our country — and to embrace a tolerant American society — should be issued immigrant visas.” But in delivering the speech, Trump said “should be issued visas” — which, since there are 10 million nonimmigrant visas issued every year and only 1 million immigrant visas, casually expands the population who’d be tested by about a factor of 10.

Everybody gets tested!
Joe Raedle/Getty

This was probably a reflection of the fact that Donald Trump doesn’t understand immigration policy well enough to know that the difference between “visas” and “immigrant visas” is really important. But it was also a way for him to assert that cultural assimilation is a national-security priority: that when people live in the US who don’t share our values, it makes us less safe.

That’s why, when he talked about terrorism, he talked about “immigrants or the children of immigrants.” That’s why he’s routinely claimed that second- and third-generation Muslim Americans “don’t assimilate.” In the Trumpian worldview, to allow someone who doesn’t agree 100 percent with the American way of life to set foot in the United States is an unforced error.

“Extreme vetting” could clog the immigration system and potentially hamper the world economy…

Once Trump is elected to the presidency, he promises, he’ll ask the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to identify regions where it’s currently impossible to adequately screen people applying for visas to enter the US. He’ll then use his power as president to suspend all admissions to the US from those regions, “until such time as it is deemed safe to resume based on new circumstances or new procedures.”

This includes way more than just immigrants. “Admissions” include literally anyone seeking to enter the US from abroad: permanent immigrants; refugees, “temporary” or seasonal workers, tourists and business travelers, students, and more. In 2014, the US admitted someone into the country from abroad 180 million times. (Some of those were repeats.) In short, it puts the concept of isolationism into literal practice. In its broadest form, “extreme vetting” could shut down all those entries temporarily.

That would be obviously disastrous. It would all but destroy the $220 billion international-tourism industry.

Worse, it would probably make it much harder for US citizens to travel abroad. A lot of the visa procedures that the US has for people from, say, Western Europe are based in part on reciprocity with how those countries treat Americans. “It very well could be,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center, that “if we start adding additional criteria restricting certain types of visas to certain countries, that we may see those countries do the same for us.”

A demonstration of the electronic system for countries in the Visa Waiver Program in 2009.
Right now, traveling to the US from Japan is as easy as a digital fingerprint swipe. Not under President Trump!
Junko Kimura/Getty

…or it could look like exactly what the US is doing now

Of course, it’s extremely unlikely that a Trump administration would literally determine that no region of the world has adequate screening. But that raises the question of where the Trump campaign thinks visa screening is inadequate now. (On Monday, Trump predicted there would be “many” such regions, and all but said that the Middle East would be one of them.) And that, in turn, raises the question of whether Trump understands what’s done to screen visas now — and what more he would like to do.

“He claims very frequently that we just can’t vet people, and that that’s incorrect,” says Brown. Trump wants immigration officials to check visa applications for fraud; they already do that. He wants officers in the US to be able to revoke the visas of people who preach hatred; they already do that, too.

“There’s no such thing as zero risk in any security system,” Brown says. This is something that policy experts generally accept, and politicians generally do not — as evidenced by the obsession with making the border “secure.” But right now, agents go through a lot of work before assessing whether someone is an “acceptable risk” to enter the United States. If Donald Trump thinks the definition of “acceptable” is too lax, he still hasn’t clarified exactly what needs to change.

The US already has ideological screening tests — but they’re about what people do, not just what they think

It’s not clear exactly what values Trump wants to ensure immigrants uphold, other than believing in the Constitution and not wanting it replaced with Sharia law. Nor is it clear whether Trump is aware that the US currently has ideological screening tests for all admissions — not just for immigrants — on the books right now.

“It is absolutely true that our current immigration code has ideological exclusions built into it,” says Adam Cox, a professor of immigration law at NYU. If you tell an immigration official that you’re a member of a known terrorist group, for example, or that you support the overthrow of the US government, you won’t get a visa to enter the US.

And even if you’re saying to yourself no good terrorist would admit to membership in a terrorist group, says Brown, “certain cases often undergo additional scrutiny” if something seems off about the applicant. “If someone has sworn allegiance to ISIL somewhere publicly,” for example, that information’s probably already in a US database — and officials will find it when doing background checks. (Trump’s proposing that officials also check social media, but that’s something DHS is already talking about doing as well.)

In 2000, the head of the Cuban Assembly was denied a visa to visit the US. It does happen!
Jorge Rey/Liaison

However, the current bars rest pretty heavily on being affiliated with particular terrorist groups. More importantly, they don’t just reject people based on what they believe — they reject them based on how they act on those beliefs.

That’s an important distinction, as it turns out. Because it’s pretty uncontroversial to criminalize certain actions in America. But it’s a lot more controversial to start punishing people based on what they say or feel.

Congress got rid of the old “ideological screening test” because it was trying to preserve American values

“In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test,” Trump said Monday. “The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today.”

The implication: The fight between American values and Islamist ones is a clash of civilizations on par with the fight between capitalism and communism.

But there’s a wrinkle in Trump’s history: The “ideological screening test” he’s talking about actually came off the books before the Cold War ended. And it came off the books not because the federal government had gotten complacent about the threat it faced, but because it realized the screening test contradicted the constitutional values the American government was theoretically using the screening test to protect.

People applying to enter the US don’t exactly have the same constitutional rights as American citizens. In fact, it’s “utterly commonplace,” Adam Cox points out, for the US to demand more of would-be immigrants than it does of its own citizens.

To enter the US, immigrants often have to have more economic or educational success than some of their American peers; to become US citizens, they have to pass a civics test that many native-born citizens would flunk.

Jill Brady/Portland Press Herald via Getty

So the “ideological screening test” isn’t problematic because it holds immigrants to a higher ideological standard than citizens. Rather, it’s problematic because it gets in the way of a belief baked into the First Amendment: the belief in the marketplace of ideas.

Americans are supposed to have the right to hear ideas from anywhere, and be trusted to tell the good ones from the bad. And the entire premise of “American exceptionalism” is that American ideas are the best ideas of all.

In the 1970s, a Marxist scholar from Belgium was invited to a conference in the US but denied a visa to attend because he’d be endorsing Marxism while he was there. He took his case all the way up to the Supreme Court — which weighed the federal government’s legal authority to refuse visas to “advocate or publish ‘the economic, international, and governmental doctrines of world communism’” against the free-speech and freedom-of-association rights of the Americans who had invited him. Ultimately, the court upheld the visa denial — but it insisted that the government could only deny a visa if it had a “legitimate and bona fide reason” to do so.

Then, in the 1980s, the Reagan administration caused “a bit of an uproar” (in Cox’s words) when Congress found out it had been denying visas to communists on the grounds that it would hurt US foreign policy. In 1990, Congress passed an immigration law that significantly narrowed the reasons the US could deny a visa on ideological grounds. Furthermore, it declared the US couldn’t use “foreign policy” as a reason to keep someone out simply based on his beliefs or associations.

Drexel law professor Anil Kalhan calls this a “First Amendment-like exception.” The executive branch has a lot of power when it comes to deciding who gets visas and who doesn’t — but, in Kalhan’s view, Congress has said freedom of speech is more powerful still.

This interpretation isn’t written in stone, and it wouldn’t necessarily stop a Trump administration from instituting the screening test it wants without a green light from Congress. And he could certainly appoint justices that endorse his view of the balance of free speech against national security. But as Kalhan says, the First Amendment is “no less fundamental in the pantheon of American values” than the values Trump lauds — in fact, it’s part of the Constitution Trump says all would-be Americans are expected to revere.

Yeah, that one.
Alex Wong/Getty

Trump thinks Islam can destroy American values. That means he thinks it’s stronger.

Donald Trump doesn’t see things that way, though. To Trump, the point of “American values” is that they are inimical to the values of the people Trump wants to destroy.

The “American values” that Trump has lifted up in this and other speeches — LGBTQ rights, religious freedom, gender equality — aren’t exactly priorities for the rest of his agenda. If those are the core American values you treasure, then you’re not likely to believe that America needs to be made “great again” — all of these are ways in which America is greater now than it has ever been.

Those values are valuable to the extent that they are threatened by Muslims. It goes back to Trump’s claims that Muslim Americans “aren’t assimilating” — he believes the two are on a collision course.

When people talk about “Americanization” and assimilation as a goal of American immigration policy, Cox points out, there are two different arguments at play. “One is an argument about the need to manage migration, to ensure that whatever change migration brings doesn't cause violent or harmful disruption to the current country.” That’s the argument that undergirds our current immigration policy, with its demands that immigrants already be like Americans (or better than some Americans).

“The second idea,” says Cox, “is the idea that there are some sets of people who could just never become citizens of the nation.” That’s the idea the US endorsed in the late 1800s, when it barred South and East Asians from immigrating. It’s not an idea that’s been part of US immigration policy since the 1960s. But it’s the idea that Trump endorses when he says that we need to screen immigrants’ values to ensure that their children don’t turn to radical Islam.

A cartoon about the Chinese Exclusion Act—one result of the idea that some people can never be assimilated to “American values.”
MPI/Getty Images

Both of these — but especially the latter — imply that Americanness is a thick identity, that you have to share lots of traits with other Americans to have it. But they also imply that those traits aren’t strong enough to simply win over everyone who’s lived in America for a certain amount of time.

In requiring that you only be allowed to move to America if you already agree with Americans about certain things, Donald Trump is saying that living in America won’t be enough to persuade you that those things are good. He’s implying that your value system is strong enough to resist the American idea — that in the marketplace of ideas, American values don’t win.

Trump portrays America as a fortress: one that needs to be protected by multiple layers of defenses to ward off invasion. But if you look at it a different way, what Trump is proposing is an ideological infection bubble for a body politic without the immune system to ward off infection on its own. The only bodies that live in bubbles are very sick, very weak ones.