Charity and Prudence on Immigration by David Montgomery


How to deal with the threat of enemies infiltrating the United States under the guise of refugees is a question without easy answers. It is a classic case of reconciling the virtues of charity and prudence. No one would give a stranger a key to their house and let them live in their spare bedroom without checking them out, nor is there any Christian doctrine that demands that naïveté. Of saints and martyrs, perhaps, but not of ordinary men and women. Yet we are also instructed: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb 13:2) A satisfactory resolution is to ask questions first and to keep the guests in a safe place while they dine.

The state has a primary duty to assure the wellbeing of its people, and has authority to do things that individuals may not. That does not mean ignoring the needs of others, but it gives prudence and practical judgment an even higher priority. In a fallen world, no good deed necessarily results in good outcomes, and this is particularly true when nations fail to exercise prudence in their relations with the rest of the world. For my part, I could not devise a materially better way to reconcile prudence and charity in light of the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Depicting the Executive Order on immigration as closing the borders of the United States is preposterous. It is selective, time-limited, based on facts and an assessment of a clear and present threat, includes waiver authority, and is directed at potential enemies who could exploit our good intentions to do us harm. It even sets out what would make entry from any country possible in the future.

Nor is it true, as some critics seem to imply, that the United States left its doors wide open until January 27, 2017. Exactly 100 years ago, Congress passed the first broadly restrictive immigration act, and entry into the US has been limited and based on criteria ever since. FDR failed miserably by every test of morality and statesmanship when he and Churchill refused to bring in Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. The Immigration Act of 1965 replaced national quotas with preference for family reunification. It shifted origins from Europe to Asia and Latin America and reduced quotas for a large number of countries to near zero. President Obama himself suspended entry from the same list of countries for six months and then limited the number of refugees after re-vetting applicants.

The text of the order matters. Here are some actual statements in the order that have been misrepresented or ignored in most press reports and editorials:

The order states that:

… the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.

How could anyone fail to applaud this policy statement? Indeed, it explicitly protects the LGBT and feminist factions that are constantly accusing the President of discrimination. It is about time we labeled bigotry, hatred and persecution practiced in other countries and by religions outside the Judeo-Christian tradition as what they are.

The order also provides that individuals will be allowed to enter only if it is possible to obtain sufficient information to determine whether or not they would be a threat. This seems to me to be a fully justified act of prudence. Thus there will be

… a review to determine the information needed from any country … to determine that the individual … is who the individual claims to be and is not a security or public-safety threat.

The order then proceeds to discuss how “… countries that do not provide adequate information” will be identified. Nowhere does the order announce a ban on Moslem immigrants nor does it name any country except Syria. Instead it makes reference to a list compiled under President Obama of countries that represent exceptional security risks. A list to which no one objected before President Trump acted on it.

The much-maligned temporary ban on entry from hotbeds of Islamic radicalism is intended to give time to determine which countries provide adequate information, and in the confident conclusion that those seven do not. Moreover, it provides that visas may be issued “on a case-by-case basis, and when in the national interest” to individuals from those countries seeking entry.

And in the case of refugees, it remedies the inexplicable discrimination against Christian refugees carried out under President Obama. The welcome words of the order are

“…admit individuals to the United States as refugees on a case-by-case basis, … but only so long as they determine that the admission of such individuals as refugees is in the national interest — including when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.”

Facts also matter. First, no word in the order instructs anyone to ignore or violate any law. Instead, it instructs all officials to enforce immigration laws vigorously, thus reversing the order of President Obama that the law be ignored. Second, Europe has faced increased crime, antisocial behavior, and terrorist attacks from immigrants from the same countries subject to the order. A high proportion of refugees now moving into and through Europe are military age males, especially in the cohort from Syria, and both ISIS and Iran have announced that they are infiltrating soldiers and terrorists with the refugees. And we need to worry about the numbers of immigrants from the breeding grounds for Islamic fundamentalism and how they can be assimilated. This we must do to avoid creating zones like those in France where police cannot go and Sharia law is enforced, remembering that Sharia law itself justifies violence against women, gays, and Moslems who convert to another religion.

There are some issues that could have been handled better. I believe that if someone is in danger because of aiding our military overseas, we owe them refuge. But even there prudence demands we make sure about their loyalties. From reports of returning soldiers, this kind of justice for people who helped them was slow and inconsistent under President Obama. President Trump could make it better, by giving the Secretary of Defense full authority over such cases.

There are good reasons why an order like this one needs to go into effect immediately, to avoid a rush of those who will no longer qualify to enter, but it could have been less disruptive if the procedures for waivers had been set out in advance and delegated as far as possible. That would have eliminated the flap about visitors in transit and green card holders that has led to so many false tears. The urgency might not have been as great had President Obama not expunged the existing list of suspected terrorists as a parting gift to the nation.

So I would challenge those who are demonstrating and otherwise expressing outrage at this order. If you are advocating open borders so that anyone can enter and live in the United States without review or hindrance, then say so. If you are opposed to the President, then state why and don’t use this Order as an excuse to condemn him. If you believe it arises from some ill-will toward Muslims, check out the similar order issued by President Obama in 2015. If you have a different solution to the dilemma of generosity versus security, then state it and defend it with facts and logic. I look forward to a discussion with you.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

Letters to Editor

  1. Sarah K. Porter says:

    Mr. Montgomery,
    Thank you for writing on this topic. Many people are asking why individuals from countries in which Mr. Trump has significant business interests — particularly Saudi Arabia, the country of origin for many of the 9/11 terrorists — were excluded from this executive order. Can you provide some insight on this?
    Thank you.

  2. Mr. Montgomery,
    No American is opposed to screening ‘bad actors’ seeking entry to our country and no one feels the President lacks authority to do so. What is upsetting is the sloppiness, haste and ignorance of President Trump’s executive order. An effective screening system exists, put in place by Presidents Bush and Obama. It works. The terrorist acts which have occurred here since 9/11, have been caused by American citizens, not by refugees. Enhancing the two year screening process already in place will not solve this problem. Most Americans oppose a religious ban. Denying entry to all citizens from specific countries, except those of a minority religion, effectively screens out all Muslims. This looks like a religious ban to me and apparently to some federal judges. By-passing the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Secretary of Defense in crafting the order caused confusion at our borders, denied entry to loyal interpreters who risked their lives for our military, and rent asunder countless families for very little reason. No doubt redrafting the order will solve many of these problems. Following proper procedures, taking time to think through policy, and keeping the right people informed would have avoided the very many problems Mr. Trump has created.

  3. Ernest S. Christian says:

    Mr. Montgomery:
    You have with compassion and big-picture insight correctly expressed the moral and intellectual cases for the travel ban now before the
    courts, where I hope it will receive the same logical treatment you have given it. I salute you, sir, with the hope that your commentary will
    receive the broad national attention it deserves. Best statement on this subject I have seen.

  4. David Montgomery says:

    To reply to the first two comments. 1. I believe there are sufficient reasons for not mentioning KSA: it was not on the existing list selected by President Obama, it is actively engaged in fighting ISIS and Al Queda in Yemen, and it has a very competent government and security police that are likely to be found capable of providing the required information; nevertheless until it stops tolerating the Wahabbi sect and its schools that teach hatred for US and Israel and an intolerant version of Islam, I would give any entrants from Saudi Arabia the most intensive scrutiny. 2. I dont consider it a religious ban, it is based on the governance of countries and potential hostility of their citizens; but by their teachings and doctrine, certain Islamic sects are intrinsically hostile to the US and all civilized values, and we have every security justification for excluding their adherents unless they are proven harmless; as to home-grown terror, the immigration policy would be no more than locking the barn door if we had already been invaded and terrorized. Its justification is a forward looking threat assessment and explicit plans of ISIS and Iran to hide their soldiers in the flow of refugees. I wish the Administration’s lawyers had made this case to the Washington judge. I do agree about the sloppiness and haste, though I am now very disturbed that the judicial delay is creating just the surge of entrants that I predicted. And I thank all the commenters for their kind support.

  5. Neil Armstrong says:

    It seems to me the vetting that has been in place already must be pretty effective. Why the rush to make it more restrictive, other than as a political pay-off to people who voted for him? Also, you cannot argue that it was done in a careful, thorough way so that everyone involved knew what they were supposed to be doing at the US entry points. I think it hurts us in the worldwide Muslim world by helping confirm what the terrorists are saying about the US hating Islam.

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