In my career as a Foreign Service officer, I asked visa applicants, including many Muslims, a lot of personal questions. What is your salary? Do you have a partner or a spouse? How healthy is your bank account? In attempting to evaluate whether visa applicants would return home after their visit to the United States, there was very little that was off limits. But the one thing that I never asked — not even in the wake of 9/11 — was "Are you a Muslim?"
It's tempting to simply dismiss Donald Trump's proposal to block all Muslims from entering the United States until we "figure out what's going on" as madness and move on. But given the fact that he's the leading GOP candidate and could face Hillary Clinton, a seemingly beatable opponent with a long history of scandals, and the reality that many of his supporters are cheering the deny-Muslims plan, let's imagine what this Trump proposal might look like in practice.
Given the fact that there is no country on Earth that is 100 percent Muslim, consular officers at our embassies and consulates would need to ask visa applicants about their religious faith. If I were still a consular officer, I would refuse to do so, because denying someone entry into the United States based on their religion is: a) unconstitutional, b) un-American, and c) counter-productive to winning the War on Terror. And I'm quite certain many of my old colleagues would do the same.
But even if consular officers played along and asked this question or if visa application forms were changed to include this query, would Islamic terrorists planning to come here to do us harm admit that they were Muslims or simply deny it? Would we take people who denied being Muslim at their word or ask them to present evidence — baptismal records and so on — to back their claim? What if we refused a visa applicant based on his Muslim faith, and he came back a year later and said, "I've converted. I'm a Christian now"?
Converting consular officers into arbiters of faith is preposterous enough, but in order to carry out Trump's plan, we'd have to drag airline and border officials into this un-American swamp as well. There are more than a million Muslims living in visa waiver countries — most in Europe — who don't need a visa to enter the United States. If an airline knowingly allows a passenger to board a U.S.-bound aircraft who they should have known would be denied entry, the airline has to pay to repatriate the person. That is why airline officials check passports and visas before giving out boarding passes.
And so if a Muslim from France steps up to the United counter at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to check in for a flight to New York, the United employee would need to ask this passenger, and indeed anyone else he or she suspected could be a Muslim, about their faith, as would DHS border officials at our ports of entry.
Trump's plan is obviously a farce. Will the GOP try to disinvite him from upcoming Republican debates? They should. His plan wouldn't work and it wouldn't help. But how can we help his supporters understand this? Here is a modest proposal: Let's send them all to Albania for a visit. Wait, I'm serious! In my first tour in the Foreign Service, I served as a consular officer in Macedonia and, because I was trained to speak Albanian, I spent a large chunk of my time interviewing ethnically Albanian visa applicants from Macedonia and Kosovo. Almost all were Muslims, but it would be hard to find a more pro-American crowd anywhere in the world.
I know what you're saying, "But the terrorists aren't coming from the Balkans!" Maybe so, but look, there is no way to win the War on Terror with a strategy that begins and ends with the word "kill". We need friends and allies in the Muslim world, and I would have a hard time telling a pro-American Muslim from Kosovo, or indeed anywhere else in the world, "I'm sorry but our country is off limits to Muslims." The truth is that if we allow legitimate tourists —strong emphasis on the word "legitimate" here because many visitors to the United States are wannabe residents in disguise — to enter, they are likely to return home with a more positive view of our country.
Trump has a remarkable platform and he uses it often to pontificate on visa and immigration matters. It's a shame that he, and indeed many of the other candidates, often have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. So no, we can't ban all Muslims from coming to the country. But there are some things we can do to restore integrity to our immigration system and make us safer. Here's what we should be talking about:
- Roughly half of illegal immigrants are visa overstays, and that doesn't even count the thousands who arrive as tourists and then game the system, legally adjusting their visa status and never going home from their purported holiday in the United States. According to the law, tourist visa applicants are supposed to be considered intending immigrants until they prove otherwise, but the State Department instead takes a business-and-diplomacy-first approach to visa issuance, approving roughly 75 percent of tourist visa applications worldwide. Let's get serious about denying tourist visa applicants — particularly young people — who have weak ties to their home countries.
- Visitors from the rich, visa waiver countries are typically granted a 90-day stay in the United States upon arrival. Yet, we grant tourist visa holders from the world's poorer nations six months, with an opportunity to renew up to 18 months. Legitimate tourists do not need a year and a half in the United States on a tourist visa. No other Western country is so lenient. Allowing visitors to stay that long gives them a chance to turn their holiday into a life here or, in the rare cases of those who want to do us harm, plan an attack. Let's give all visitors a 90-day stay, renewable only in specific circumstances.
- We need a clear, verifiable entry/exit tracking system, so we know how long our foreign visitors are staying and where they're located.
Unfortunately, thanks to Trump, the presidential candidates are unlikely to be talking about these important issues at the upcoming debates. They'll be talking about Trump's ludicrous plan, which is more than a shame. Trump's scheme will never happen, but millions of Muslims around the world have already read about it, and thought less of us because of it. Enough already.