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Donald Trump's 'Extreme Vetting' plan for immigration has a long history in the US

There have been many attempts throughout US history to ban immigrants from certain ethnic or religious backgrounds for the same national security reasons that Trump is citing.
Imagen por Cristobal Herrera/EPA

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called for a system of "extreme vetting" for immigrants that would include an ideological test before allowing them into the country as part of a wide-ranging speech on countering terrorism on Monday.

"We will be tough and we will even be extreme," Trump said, explaining how he would screen applicants.

"We should only admit into our country those who share our values and respect our people," the Republican nominee continued. Under his Extreme Vetting program, Trump said anyone who has "hostile attitudes to our country," thinks Islamic law should replace US law, or doesn't support the Constitution wouldn't be allowed in.


Of course, one of the central components to Trump's campaign all along has been his proposal to ban various groups of people from coming to the US in the name of stopping terrorism and making America great again. Over the past year, he has alternated between calling for outright ban on all Muslims to just ones from certain places with a "history of terrorism," a sentiment that he repeated on Monday.

Trump's desire to ban people from certain religious or ethnic groups has been repeatedly denounced as both unconstitutional and unenforceable. But Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric is nothing new when it comes to the long history of who to let into this country and why.

Paul Lombardo, an expert on immigration law and history at Georgia State University, said that much of the rhetoric coming from Trump and his supporters mirror attitudes about immigration that date back to the 19th century.

When it comes to deciding who to allow into the country and who to ban, "there is a long history of attempts to use the law to maintain a kind of ideological purity," said Lombardo.

For example, Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson's comment that Obama and Romney were not "pure breeds," reminded Lombardo of an "old fashioned eugenic slur" heard in the early 1900s.

Underlying Trump's calls to restrict immigration are the same motivations that the government has long used — chief among them concerns over jobs and national security. One of the earliest and most sweeping immigration laws came in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which blocked all Chinese laborers from coming to the US. It grew out of the increased hostility toward foreign workers competing for scarce jobs in the post-Civil War economy.


Immigration laws got even more draconian around the turn of the 20th century, Lombardo said, when migration to the US from Europe exploded. This resulted in rising nativist sentiment, culminating in the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act which capped the number of immigrants based on the country of origin. It severely restricted people from the Middle East and outright banned anyone from Asia, while prioritizing those of European and Christian backgrounds. There were also mandatory questionnaires for migrants, which asked things like whether they've ever been an anarchist, involved in polygamy, or supported the violent overthrow of a government, says Lombardo.

Trump has not said exactly what questions his administration would pose to citizenship applicants from overseas, other than making sure they weren't terrorists. This is reminiscent to the citizenship tests from the 1900s, when immigrants from certain parts of the world faced the intense scrutiny for many of the same reason that Muslims do today.

"It was the same idea that there are certain religious groups and certain types of people who are more likely to become radicalized," Lombardo said, explaining the immigration laws in the 1910s. In particular, Lombardo said, Catholics and Jews from eastern Europe were viewed with wariness because they were thought to be more willing to subvert the government.

Trump's attitude toward banning ideological foes are even more reminiscent of anti-communist measures from the mid-20th century — something Trump acknowledged himself during his speech.


"In the Cold War we had an ideological screening test," he pointed out. "The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today."

The ideological screening test Trump might have had in mind was the 1952 McCarran–Walter Act. Passed during the height of Cold War anxiety, it restricted anyone who the government deemed was politically radical, associated in any way with communism or otherwise appeared to pose a national security threat. The law placed a preference on people coming from north and western Europe allied countries while reinforcing the quota system from other less desirable countries. The highly controversial bill was actually vetoed by President Harry Truman, who believed it went against American values. It was passed anyway by Congress.

Trump ended his speech Monday on by reassuring everyone his proposals were not rooted in bigotry or fear. On the contrary, Trump said, immigrants should be grateful to adopt American culture, which "is the best in the world and will produce the best outcomes for all who adopt it."

After all, Trump continued, "Assimilation is not an act of hostility, but an expression of compassion."

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLbecker