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U.S. ideological test for immigrants evokes dark chapter

This statement was originally published on pen.org on 27 January 2017.

In response to an executive order to strengthen vetting of immigrants into the United States, signed this afternoon by President Donald J. Trump, PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel released the following statement:

“President Trump today signed an executive order suspending the admission of refugees to the United States and barring the entry of immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries. We reject this order as contrary to the U.S. Constitution and an affront to our values. Of particular concern for an organization of writers, the order indicates that the administration will impose an ideological test on immigrants, excluding those who hold opinions critical of the United States. Banning immigrants on the basis of their political views would resurrect the worst excesses of McCarthy-era paranoia toward foreigners and would violate the First Amendment rights of Americans to hear and debate with a diverse range of international speakers. While vetting and screening processes to identify potential perpetrators of violence can be valid and important security measures, blanket ideological tests or prohibitions do not serve this or any other purpose, other than to exclude particular viewpoints.

“The Order includes language stating foreigners entering the U.S. should not 'bear hostile attitudes' toward the country and 'its founding principles,' and should 'support the Constitution.' These broad and vague provisions could potentially block critics of the United States or particular U.S. policies from entering.

“PEN America has long fought against ideological exclusion tests, which date back to the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, enacted at the height of the McCarthy Era. The Act allowed the exclusion of foreigners on the basis of their political beliefs and was a source of national disgrace for decades as it was used to deny entry to some of the most important names in international literature, including Doris Lessing, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Graham Greene, Dario Fo, and others. These exclusions and visa delays became ammunition in the hands of repressive governments around the world to impugn the U.S.'s record on free speech and civil liberties. After sustained protest and lobbying by PEN America and other civil society organizations, the Act was amended to eliminate the ideological exclusion provision in 1990.

“Excluding people from the United States purely on the basis of what they think and believe is unconstitutional and would evoke a dark chapter in our history. Amid a rising tide of isolationism, PEN America will fight to keep the flow of ideas and information between the U.S. and the rest of the world open, resisting any attempt to exclude individuals based on ideology. The list of distinguished PEN Members and guests who have been subject to ideological exclusions historically is long. This legacy is a stain on America's record as a haven for free thinkers and should not be revived.”

-Suzanne Nossel
Executive Director, PEN America
January 27, 2017

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