A Virginia congressman announced a bill Wednesday that would make it illegal for the United States to block an immigrant based on his or her religion.
The very short measure — just one full sentence — is meant as a symbolic swing at a key element of Donald Trump’s bid for president, his repeated pledge to temporarily stop all Muslims from entering the United States.
“An alien may not be denied admission to the United States because of the alien’s religion or lack of religious beliefs,” the text proposed by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) says. Beyer announced the bill at a news conference Wednesday along with five other Democratic members of Congress and dozens of representatives of atheists and Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious organizations.
Of the six members of Congress and five religious leaders who spoke in favor of the bill, only one mentioned Trump by name. But all clearly referred to him.
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) listed recent instances of bullying and one case of violence against Muslims in his Queens district. “When a candidate for president, a standard-bearer, calls for a ban on an entire religion from entering this country, this is what happens,” he said, calling Beyer’s bill “important legislation” and “a noble effort.”
It is not clear now that Trump would actually have the power as president to deny all Muslims entry to the country. Experts have said that while constitutional rights do not apply to non-U.S. citizens, international agreements would make such an immigration policy illegal.
With the legality of Trump’s plan at least somewhat in question, this bill seeks to more definitely prevent a president from taking such an action. Beyer’s office said 54 Democrats and one Republican, Richard Hanna of New York, have agreed to co-sponsor the bill.
But some lawyers questioned the effect of the bill, if it were to manage to pass a Republican-controlled House.
“It’s well-meaning, but it’s not a sensible approach to the problem,” said Michael McConnell, a former federal judge who runs the Stanford Constitutional Law Center. He pointed out that Congress often does want authorities to be able to consider immigrants’ religion: For example, in the case of refugees fleeing religious persecution.
“Religion is legitimately part of determinations under immigration. Barring all Muslims is wrong. But barring all consideration of religion is wrong too,” McConnell said.
Beyer said the bill wouldn’t prevent authorities from considering immigrants’ religion, just from banning them based on it. “We want this bill to ban the negative use,” Beyer said. “It does nothing to hamper Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol from using religion as a reason to bring someone in. We can use it in a positive way, just not in a negative way.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that as a former constitutional lawyer, she initially wondered why the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion was not sufficient to protect immigrants. She quickly realized it was not, she said. “I looked into this and said, ‘Why are we having to do this?’ This is a very important bill,” she said. “The Constitution of the United States does not specifically protect immigrants and does not give immigrants the entire array of constitutional protections.”
The brief bill has the broad title “Freedom of Religion Act.”
“Our voices must be loud and strong saying no to discrimination of all kinds, including in our immigration system,” Beyer said when introducing it.