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Trump Cites Cold War Precedent for Immigrant Test

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Youngstown, Ohio, Aug. 15, 2016.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Youngstown, Ohio, Aug. 15, 2016.

Donald Trump’s call for “extreme” changes in the U.S. immigration system explicitly linked a strategy for combating radical Islam with America’s defeat of Communism during the Cold War - and would establish tougher ideological tests for immigrants than ever before.

“In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today," the Republican presidential nominee said in a foreign policy speech in Youngstown, Ohio Monday. "We should only admit into this country, those who share our values and respect our people.”

Trump said his proposal would screen out sympathizers of terrorist groups, anyone with hostile attitudes towards the United States and its principles, as well as any supporters of sharia law. He also said he would work with immigration services and the Department of Homeland Security to cease processing visas from countries and regions deemed unsafe because the flow of immigrants from those countries was too large to support adequate screening.

The proposal builds on Trump’s earlier calls for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the United States and a suspension of visa issuances to countries with a history of terrorism following the Orlando, Florida nightclub shooting.

Trump did not elaborate on the specific questions that would have to be developed for an ideological test but did say that his administration “would speak out against the oppression of women, gays and people of different beliefs.”

“It probably won’t weed out very many people because most people who believe in that stuff are going to be sophisticated enough to know to lie,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies.

He added that it was difficult to comment on only the bare outlines of Trump’s proposals, but they could be unconstitutional, politically impossible to implement, and only partially successful at identifying potential terrorist threats.

"It will weed out a few people and more importantly, it will send a message that hopefully will deter a few people from moving here,” he conceded.

Various ideological restrictions on naturalization have existed in U.S. immigration law in one way or another since the beginning of the country when applicants were required to adhere to the principles in the Constitution.

Since the early 20th century, interpretations of that requirement have resulted in bars against specific ideologies such as Communism and anarchism, usually interpreted as membership in organizations supporting those ideas for up to 10 years prior to application. The provisions were dropped in 1990.

Current procedures identify individuals who have joined terrorist groups or sent money to them, while Trump’s proposal appears to seek out individuals who hold beliefs separate from any formal organization.

Krikorian said, “This is the kind of provision where you don’t grapple with the grey areas – you just leave them out. You just deal with the extreme cases.”

Current Law

“There’s never been a proposal like this,” said Angela Kelley, who looks at immigration issues as the Executive Director, Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“That you would basically have to attest to sharing certain social views and having certain values that reach the kind of level of what he’s talking about it. It feels like it would be intensely un-workable, unenforceable – and would certainly curb people’s appetite in terms of coming to this country,” she added.

Ultimately, Trump’s proposal struck Kelley as impossible on a basic level: “How are you testing for a person’s acceptance for LGBT issues, gender roles?”

Additionally, the outlines of Trump’s proposal appear to be similar to already existing immigration law.

Doris Meissner, a senior fellow who runs the U.S. Immigration program at the Migration Policy Institute, noted immigrants seeking naturalization are already asked questions about their intent to commit terrorist activities and that even asking questions about intent on immigration forms can prove difficult.

Trump’s proposal would differ in that it would apply to visa applicants in addition to immigrants seeking naturalization.

“These things can be very difficult to administer in the real world and in real world terms,” Meissner said, noting intelligence sharing efforts and linking of state, local and federal databases after 9/11 had proved far more effective in weeding terrorists out of the immigration system.

But even if the proposal did work in practice, it could be extremely difficult to push through politically.

“It’s not feasible and almost overtly, blatantly unconstitutional,” said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Unless you can imagine a set of courts ignoring laws and precedents and Constitutional provisions, this is just not going to happen. This is much more a sort of gut level policy initiative designed to play into a nativist sentiment in the country, then it is a serious proposal to change American policy,” he said, noting Congress would also be likely to block any proposed changes.

On Capitol Hill, the reaction from opposing Democrats was already strong. In a statement released shortly before Trump’s speech, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said, “Since Donald Trump wants to impose new tests on immigrants, he should take the one test every immigrant has to pass to become a United States citizen.”

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp