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A Needed Fix to the McCarran Act

The McCarran-Walter Act is one of the most noxious pieces of legislation on the books. Enacted in the early 1950s at the height of the McCarthy era, the act seeks to protect the United States by denying admission to aliens who are ideologically impure. In practice, this measure has been used repeatedly by Republican and Democratic Administrations to deny admission to people whose views the government doesn’t like--even when those people pose no conceivable threat to the country.

Last week, while approving the State Department authorization bill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted an amendment that would do away with the most onerous provision of the McCarran-Walter Act. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kansas), would prevent the executive branch from denying someone a visa on the basis of his political beliefs or the expected content of the speech he is coming to the United States to make. The so-called ideological grounds for exclusion would be repealed.

No other provision of the law would be affected. The Administration could still deny admission to terrorists and others whose presence here does present a danger and who should be barred.

This amendment is most welcome, though it is only a first step in changing this egregious law. Even if the amendment is adopted by Congress, there is a danger that an Administration could simply shift its grounds of exclusion and seek to bar people as terrorists whom it previously barred on ideological grounds. To address this problem, Moynihan has introduced other legislation that would provide for judicial review of executive decisions to deny a visa. There is also a measure in the House by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that would completely rewrite the McCarran Act so that it keeps out only those people who legitimately should be kept out.

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Meanwhile, Moynihan’s amendment to the State Department authorization bill should be adopted as swiftly and emphatically as possible. Even Sen. Jesse Helms (D-N.C.) voted for it in committee. Even he recognizes that the current law has been misused. The Moynihan amendment is an excellent first step toward straightening out the law.


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