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Ideological Screening Is Un-American

Ideological screening of immigrants would bring us a step closer to authoritarianism.

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Donald Trump is once again advocating the ideological screening of immigrants. He wants to “keep foreign, Christian-hating communists, Marxists and socialists” out of America. Having lived under left-wing regimes in Argentina, I’m a staunch opponent of every form of communism, Marxism and socialism. But the truth is that ideological screening, instead of “mak[ing] America great,” will take America one step closer to totalitarianism.

Hiding behind what may seem like a delimited change to immigration policy is a concession of sweeping government power. Such power would impact not only the one million immigrants that come to America every year — but also the more than 300 million Americans living here already.

Thinking through this policy’s logic and implications reveals that giving the government power to screen immigrants’ ideologies means handing government the expansive power to police everyone’s ideas. It would effectively make the government the decider of thought and morality — the arbiter of what ideologies are correct and what values people should hold. It would mean surrendering the root of American freedom: the freedom of thought.

The major reason offered for instituting ideological screening of immigrants is to protect America from the impact of evil ideologies. But if that’s the case, this justification applies even more strongly to citizens. Immigrants cannot vote nor run for office unless naturalized (a process that takes years, if they choose to pursue it). Even permanent residents (“green card” holders) are ineligible to vote. Citizens are the ones who can vote, who can run for office, and who can readily effect political change. If government is to police ideas, it has all the more reason to root out “wrong-think” among the 300-plus million citizens.

History gives many examples of the disasters that happen when government exerts control over thought and truth: recall the gulags in Soviet Russia, where intellectual opponents of the regime were sent to “reform” and often die. Or modern-day Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea — all regimes based on ideological control. These regimes are the exact opposite of what America stands for. Granting government the power to screen anyone’s ideology would take America one step closer to these evil regimes.

Part of what makes America a free society is that we are free to think and speak our minds, regardless of what ideas we may hold, as recognized by the Constitution.  Freedom of thought isn’t limited to the “right” ideas as decided by politicians or government censors — or by anyone else other than the individual. In fact, government’s only role here is to protect our freedom to think and express our ideas.

'Freedom of thought isn’t limited to the “right” ideas as decided by politicians or government censors.' Click To Tweet

Americans who understand the value of freedom (including freedom of thought) would never accept the idea that government can dictate to them what books they should read, what political opinions they should hold, or if or what they should worship. Granting government the power to dictate these things to immigrants surrenders the principle that Americans hold so dearly for themselves — and this betrayal imperils their own freedom.

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But what about terrorists who yell “death to America,” and other groups that work to overthrow the government or otherwise hurt Americans? As the protector of individual rights, our government does have a role screening for foreign agents, members of terrorist groups and other actors actively seeking to initiate force to impose their ideas.

But there is a big difference between holding an idea — however mistaken, false or evil that idea — and taking the law into one’s own hands to try to impose that idea on others by force. It’s the difference between a university professor writing a book praising Marxism and someone joining the Communist party in order to violently overthrow the American government. It’s the difference between someone believing abortion is murder and an anti-abortion activist gunning down doctors. It’s the difference between someone engaging in Islamic prayer and a member of Al Qaeda or Islamic State plotting a suicide attack to kill infidels in the name of Allah.

It is government’s responsibility to identify and thwart people plotting the overthrow of the government or the murder of doctors or infidels (whether such people are trying to enter the country or are already here), because they are acting to violate other individuals’ rights, in the name of their ideology. Under current law, for example, members of totalitarian parties are rightly banned from immigrating to the U.S., as the goal of these parties and their members is the violent overthrow of our form of government.

Ideas matter, and evil ideas are dangerous. But, as philosopher Ayn Rand put it, “evil ideas are dangerous only by default of men advocating better ideas.” It is the role of citizens, not the government, to ostracize or persuade people with bad ideas. If someone, like me, fiercely opposes communism, they are free to not listen to communists, not engage with them, not platform them — and counter their arguments with better ones.

And better arguments are what American ideals provide us. America’s founding ideals are the only path on which individuals can think for themselves and pursue their own happiness. They are strong enough to win over any other set of ideas. It is on us to advocate them correctly.

'America’s founding ideals are the only path on which individuals can think for themselves and pursue their own happiness.' Click To Tweet

Government has no business deciding people’s ideology — whether citizens or not. It is a blatant contradiction to claim to protect freedom in America by embracing thought control and totalitarianism.

This article was originally published by the Southern California News Group.

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Agustina Vergara Cid

Agustina Vergara Cid, LLB and LLM, is an associate fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and an opinion columnist at the Orange County Register.

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