The Case for Extreme Immigrant Vetting

George J. Borjas, Politico, August 17, 2016


Since before the founding even, U.S. policies about whom the country chooses to welcome and reject have changed in response to changing conditions. As early as 1645, the Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited the entry of poor or indigent persons. By the early 20th century, the country was filtering out people who had “undesirable” traits, such as epileptics, alcoholics and polygamists. Today, the naturalization oath demands that immigrants renounce allegiance to any foreign state. Even our Favorite Founding Father du jour, Alexander Hamilton (himself an immigrant), thought it was important to scrutinize whoever came to the United States. He wrote:

To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens, the moment they put foot in our country . . . would be nothing less, than to admit the Grecian Horse into the Citadel of our Liberty and Sovereignty. . . . The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass. . . . In times of great public danger there is always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone weakens the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader.

In other words, immigration vetting is as American as apple pie.


One of my favorite examples of the extreme vetting is the 1917 Immigration Act, which, in addition to effectively barring immigration from Asia, listed the many traits that would make potential immigrants inadmissible. The following quote is very long, but it shows the excruciating detail with which Americans have historically resorted to extreme vetting:

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.


Here is the application filled out by green card applicants today (Form I-485). Among the many 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
c. Knowingly encouraged, induced, assisted, abetted or aided any alien to try to enter the U.S. illegally?
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.

In view of this almost 400-year track record, is it really that big a stretch to add questions, as Trump proposes, that would expand the filtering to reflect political conditions and national security concerns today? In particular, is it really that big a departure from what we have done in the past if we also asked green card applicants: “Do you believe that religious law should supplant the Constitution of the United States?” Or if we asked: “Do you believe that the law should treat people differentially based on their gender, their race, or their sexual orientation?” And would it really be that unreasonable if we had second thoughts about admitting persons who answered those questions in the affirmative? Are there really that many Americans who would disagree with the notion that a reasonable immigration policy should, in Trump’s words, keep out “those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred”?


The many filters that have been used throughout American history to determine who will and will not get an entry visa have an obvious purpose. Yes, some of them, in the hindsight of history, seemed to have had no constructive purpose. But for the most part, they helped to strengthen the social and political fabric of our country and they helped to define the common set of values that distinguishes us as Americans. Or to quote Alexander Hamilton again: “The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common National sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits.”

So, regardless of what you think about the Trump candidacy, the next time you hear that Trump’s proposal for immigrant vetting is un-American, the correct response is that it is American to its core. And the next time you hear that Trump’s proposal is 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.

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