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Why Donald Trump’s 'ideological screening' wouldn’t be a first for the US

Ideological bars for non-citizens have a long history in the US, where they've often been fueled by xenophobia.

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Juan Alfaro, a Honduran immigrant to the US, recites the Pledge of Allegiance after taking the oath of citizenship at the Betsy Ross House during a Flag Day and Naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia in 2006.

Matt Rourke/AP

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In a speech at Youngstown State University in Ohio on Monday night, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for “ideological warfare” as a means of defeating the Islamic State and said that a Trump administration would institute “a new screening test for the threats we face today.”

“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,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks.

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Under current US law, as the Washington Post notes, immigration officials have sweeping latitude to refuse visas to incomers whom they deem disposed toward committing crimes. Naturalization requirements include a “willingness to be attached to the principles of the Constitution.” And experts say a host of ideological restrictions on entering or remaining in the United States are already on the books. In 2013, for instance, nine people were deported for “anarchism,” according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data.

The cold war-era laws to which Mr. Trump may have meant to refer include the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which allowed officials to bar entry and deport non-citizens suspected of being Communists. But given Trump's own frequent evocation of terrorism – and the indiscriminate way in which he often connects it to immigration – a closer historical parallel to what he is proposing may be the 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act and its subsequent amendments, which barred foreign-born anarchists from entry and made them deportable.

The 1903 law passed two years after Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American man said to be a follower of prominent anarchist Emma Goldman, assassinated US president William McKinley.

“There was a kind of anti-anarchist panic, and the years between 1880 and 1920 were years of anarchist terrorism, with some anarchists explicitly advocating violence,” says Donna Gabaccia, a historian of international migration and professor at the University of Toronto-Scarborough.

Terrorist bombings by anarchists excited a wave of xenophobia – and measures that, like the 1903 law, implicitly blamed foreigners for the violence, even though anarchism in the United States tended to be the province of second-generation sons and daughters.

“There is also now a growing scholarly literature based on European police records that most immigrant anarchists in the USA became anarchists after immigration,” Dr. Gabaccia tells The Christian Science Monitor. “They did not arrive in the country already radicalized.”

On Monday, Trump did not reprise his December suggestion that the United States bar Muslims from entering the country, though many of the features of his latest plan align with it: a temporary suspension of immigration from regions with “a history of exporting terrorism” would be enacted, he said; as an example of immigration flows “too large to perform adequate screening,” he cited a figure for incoming immigrants from Middle Eastern countries.

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“In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles – or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law,” said Trump.

“As soon as I take office, I will ask the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to identify a list of regions where adequate screening cannot take place. We will stop processing visas from those areas until such time as it is deemed safe to resume based on new circumstances or new procedures.”

Sweeping regional bars to entry might do little to make Trump's version of "extreme vetting" tests much more workable, however.

Even at the height of fears over Communism and anarchism, few immigrants were actually excluded from the United States because of ideological screening, says Kenyon Zimmer, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas-Arlington who specializes in migration and political radicalism.

Such measures, he tells the Monitor, proved difficult to enforce. “How would you do it? Someone is arriving through a checkpoint and you say, ‘Are you an anarchist?’ and they say, ‘No.’ How would you know otherwise?" 

“With history as a guide,” he says, “it doesn’t seem like ideological exclusion would be particularly useful or effective, let alone the huge abrogation of freedom of speech” such screening could imply.