Politics

What Donald Trump means when he proposes 'extreme vetting' for would-be immigrants

Donald Trump, who has made tighter controls on immigration a mainstay of his campaign, has a new plan: an ideological test for anyone entering the U.S.

Trump has famously proposed building a wall on the Mexican border and a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., an idea that has spawned continuing attacks on him – most notably, a denunciation from the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq. He’s also talked about suspending immigration from countries with a history of spawning terrorists, a proposal he repeated Monday.

Although the anti-immigration statements have won him support from many Republican voters, the newest message seems aimed at winning over others who might be worried about terrorism, but who have been turned off by the harsh divisiveness of his earlier remarks. But experts say it’s unclear how the proposals would differ from current U.S. immigration policy — or how they could help prevent terrorist attacks.

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What’s new in Trump’s proposal?

In a speech in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump called for a new screening test, which he labeled “extreme, extreme vetting,” designed to keep out anyone who does not share “American values” and who is not prepared to “embrace a tolerant American society.” Until such a test is ready, he said, the U.S. should temporarily suspend immigration from countries that have histories of spawning terrorists.

Which countries is he talking about?

He didn’t specify, but in his speech he spoke about the dangers of admitting refugees from Syria and other countries in the Middle East that have been torn apart by civil war and attacks by Islamic State. If he is elected, he said, he would ask the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to identify regions where adequate screening is impossible, and stop processing visas from those areas.

How would this make the U.S. safer?

There’s an open question. People traveling from countries like Syria and Iran already face tough screening measures. Trump wants to use the immigration system to keep out people who believe the tenets of radical Islamist ideology. But in reciting a list of terrorism attacks in the U.S., Trump failed to mention that a number of those attackers were U.S. citizens, or had come to the U.S. as children.

Is Trump’s plan legal?

Probably. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 gives the president and the executive branch sweeping powers to deny entry to anyone who would be “detrimental to the interests of the U.S.” The law cites a host of reasons for rejecting would-be immigrants, including support or association with terrorist organizations or membership in “totalitarian” political parties. Some of those provisions, on assessing potentially dangerous political beliefs, date from the Cold War.

But it’s hard to imagine how questions about gender roles or terrorist leanings would help prevent dangerous people from entering the U.S., said one former immigration official.

“If someone really was coming here to do us harm, do we really believe they would answer that question honestly?” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under former President Bill Clinton.

How would Trump’s process differ from current practice?

That’s also unclear. In the 15 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. has built a system to screen all non-citizens trying to enter the U.S. Intelligence is now shared with immigration officials, and security employees are posted in sensitive countries to help vet visa applicants, former officials said.

How many people would have to be screened?

Again, Trump did not make clear whether the new “extreme vetting” would apply to all visitors, or simply select people, or those from specific countries. The U.S. issued more than 10.8 million visas to visitors last year – up from 7.5 million in 2011 – and granted approval to more than 531,000 immigrants to enter the U.S. If all of those people were to face significant new regulations and tests, the gears of the immigration process could slow dramatically, said John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The U.S. also denied admission to about 3 million visitors. Fewer than 1,000 of those were on grounds of terrorism-related activities, according to government statistics.

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @jtanfani

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