For much of American history, it was understood that no one had a right to immigrate to America, that Americans had the unfettered right to decide who should come to America, and that immigration should be judged on whether it benefited America and Americans, not on whether it was good for immigrants. Applying these principles, the United States effectively ended Chinese immigration in 1882 and drastically curtailed immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe in 1924. As I noted in my December 2014 piece on an immigration moratorium, “Coolidge’s America recognized that the only legitimate criterion for assessing immigration was whether it was beneficial for America and Americans.” One need not wonder too long about how the Congresses that passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 would have acted if Islamic gunmen were then killing innocents around the globe, including in America.
The outcry over Donald Trump’s proposal to end Islamic immigration, at least for a time, is a reminder of how far we have moved from those principles. Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Adviser, told CNN that ending Islamic immigration is “totally contrary to our values as Americans. You know, we have in our Bill of Rights respect for freedom of religion.” Not to be outdone, Dick Cheney told Hugh Hewitt that, “Well, I think the whole notion that somehow we need to say no more Muslims and just ban a whole religion goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean religious freedom’s been a very important part of our history.” (Cheney does, however, find bombing and invading Moslem countries to be perfectly acceptable).
The apparent belief of Rhodes and Cheney that the Constitution somehow gives Moslems the right to immigrate to America is too much even for the Washington Post, which noted, in a piece highly critical of Trump, that “Barring Muslims who are not U. S. citizens from entering the country may not violate U. S. law in the same way, the experts said, because the Constitution’s protections generally do not apply to people outside the nation’s borders.” (One also wonders what Rhodes and Cheney would make of Justice Joseph Story, the leading commentator on the Constitution in the first half of the nineteenth century, who wrote that “The real object of the [First] amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahommetanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”)
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino are reminders that Islamic immigration carries a significant cost. After all, the attackers were either Islamic immigrants themselves or the children of Islamic immigrants, and the Paris attackers planned their attack in one Moslem immigrant enclave and fled to another Moslem immigrant enclave after the attack. Curtailing Islamic immigration is something the American people should be allowed to consider in the wake of those attacks. Considering such an option is not “contrary to everything we stand for and believe in.” If you want to see what is “contrary to everything we stand for and believe in,” it was on full display last week in San Bernardino.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.