This begins with a review of immigration exclusion and deportation (also known as removal) policy, highlighting the history of ideological exclusion. Next, it examines the McCarran-Walter ideological exclusion and its demise in 1990. Then, it considers certain parallels between previous concerns that informed exclusionary policies, particularly during the Cold War, and today’s heightened concerns with Islamofascism following the 9/11 attacks. Finally, several policy recommendations are offered.
America has often faced the threat of foreigners promoting radical ideologies, including Jacobinism, anarchism, communism, fascism, and now Islamism. It is an unavoidable consequence of mass immigration. The higher the level of immigration, the more likely it is that individuals espousing hatred and violence toward America will gain entry. But whatever the level of immigration, excluding or removing noncitizens from the United States based on their promotion of such beliefs (“ideological exclusion”) can help to protect the country. Historically such efforts have played this role, especially during the 20th century. With the end of the Cold War, Congress effectively repealed ideological exclusion, meaning that only active terrorists on watch lists could be barred, while those promoting the ideologies of such terrorists would have to be admitted. To end this vulnerability, ideological exclusion should be restored, allowing aliens to be excluded or deported not only for overt acts but also for radical affiliations or advocacy. Such grounds for exclusion and removal should be based on characteristics common to the many varieties of extremism, rather than target a specific ideology.
Maintaining control over aliens who wish to enter the United States and over those who already have crossed America’s borders has been a guiding principle of American immigration policy since colonial days. Many of the Founding Fathers, notably many of those who served in the earliest Congresses, sought to ensure that only foreigners who embraced American ideals and republican principles would gain admittance — and it was expected that any who displayed disloyal views after arrival would be deported.
One such policy of exclusion based on an alien’s ideological beliefs came to prominence in the Cold War era, and was effectively eradicated in the 1990 Immigration Act. That law eliminated the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act’s iteration of ideological exclusion. Denounced as a Cold War relic, the use of ideology as a grounds for exclusion met its demise.
However, the advisability of this policy change has been called into question by a new awareness of the wisdom of the Founders and of past congressional immigration controllers in their concern for the beliefs that aliens may harbor. Today, the question has become: Is America left vulnerable because of the virtual elimination of ideological exclusion and the overexpansion of First Amendment protections to noncitizens whose allegiance lies somewhere other than with the United States of America?
Ideological exclusion rightly gives a certain amount of pause because of its nexus between our “nation of immigrants” folklore and “freedom of speech” ideals. While much public invocation of the term “nation of immigrants” to describe America’s immigrant experience is vastly overblown, immigration has indeed played a role in American history that is unique among nations. Though the notion that anybody can become an American oversimplifies the case, the fact is that the United States has exhibited a remarkable willingness and ability to assimilate outsiders.
Likewise, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that Congress shall not infringe upon Americans’ rights to freedom of religion, speech, and press. Americans quite properly hold these rights dear. The Constitution protects these specific rights of Americans for Americans and for America’s benefit. Therefore, to consider where these rights’ appropriate limits lie (because, as the Supreme Court has long recognized, they are not absolute rights) can be uncomfortable.
This Backgrounder begins with a review of exclusion and deportation (also known as removal) policy, highlighting the history of ideological exclusion. Next, it examines the McCarran-Walter ideological exclusion and its demise in 1990. Then, it considers certain parallels between previous concerns that informed exclusionary policies, particularly during the Cold War, and today’s heightened concerns with Islamofascism following the 9/11 attacks. Finally, several policy recommendations are offered.
James R. Edwards, Jr., Ph.D., is an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute, co-author of The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform, and contributor to several published volumes concerning immigration issues. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Times, Human Events, and other publications.