Will a Questionnaire Catch a Terrorist? Donald Trump’s “Extreme Vetting” Plan

Written by on August 23, 2016 in Elections with 1 Comment

27715503852_c806ebc0bb_kOne of Donald Trump’s more recent, outrageous ideas having to do with immigration is to conduct what he calls “extreme vetting” of prospective immigrants to the United States. The basic idea is to weed out those would-be immigrants “who support bigotry and hatred,” and the main target of this turbo-charged vetting is anyone who happens to be Muslim. This “vetting” plan is a follow-up to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration to the United States altogether—a ban so indiscriminate that it would exclude Syrian refugees who are fleeing terrorism themselves.

Among Trumps’s supporters in this anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant crusade is George Borjas, a professor of economics and social policy at Harvard University who has written extensively about immigration from an overwhelmingly anti-immigration point of view. In an August 17 article in Politico Magazine, Borjas defends Trump and his “extreme vetting” with a surreal history lesson in U.S. immigration law.

Borjas lists the many categories of people that the U.S. government has barred from the country over the centuries: “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics,” current or former members of the Communist Party, anyone Asian—all of which proves, as Borjas writes, that “immigration vetting is as American as apple pie.” One might argue that it also proves discrimination is as American as apple pie, but that doesn’t mean we want to keep replicating it in the future. Of course, Borjas observes, some of these prohibited groups, like epileptics and Asians, “have long since been rolled back—and for good reason.” But the rest are clearly valid, says Borjas, and Trump just wants to pile on a few more to adequately address the security needs of the modern era.

For the sake of argument, what would be an example of a good question to ask prospective immigrants to find out if they are a good fit with U.S. society? Borjas proposes one: “Do you believe that the law should treat people differentially based on their gender, their race, or their sexual orientation?” That  would be an interesting question to ask of Trump supporters as well. How many of them believe in equal treatment of all people regardless of sexual orientation? The point isn’t that we should or should not admit immigrants based on their opinion about gay marriage. The point is that our rules for admitting immigrants shouldn’t be hypocritical, and should not make a litmus test of beliefs that have nothing to do with terrorism or national security.

At the end of his screed, Borjas acknowledges that this is all a semantic game of sorts. He notes that questionnaires are of limited utility since it is doubtful that any question would have elicited an honest response from the 9/11 hijackers about their intent to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. All of which, at last, gets to the real point: the key to finding a terrorist is specific intelligence about an individual who might be dangerous, not whether or not that individual slips up and checks the box next to “Yes, I am a terrorist.”

In the face of this rather significant limitation on the power of a questionnaire, Borjas is left with only one fallback argument: that “perjury in the visa application gives the government an easy way for detaining and deporting dangerous immigrants living in our midst, even after they become American citizens.” So, basically, if we wait long enough, we’ll learn after the fact that someone lied when they indicated that they weren’t dangerous. Or, a more likely outcome would will be stripping someone of their citizenship and deporting them because they made a mistake on their questionnaire that has nothing to do with terrorism.

Photo by Gage Skidmore.

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  • LFord

    Excellent article.

    Best Regards,
    L. Ford Banister, II
    U.S. Immigration and Consular Processing Attorney

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