WASHINGTON — In a move to allow more free trade in ideas, the Senate voted Wednesday to forbid the government from denying visas to foreign activists solely because of their political views.
The move would overturn part of a Cold War-era law that permits the government to deny entry to foreigners with ties to Communist or other political organizations that it does not like. In recent years, the State Department has relied on the law--the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952--to refuse visas to scores of politicians, authors, journalists and activists who planned to speak at rallies or on college campuses in the United States.
Years of 'Needless Ridicule'
"For the past 35 years, legislation to bar non-immigrant aliens on ideological grounds has exposed our nation to needless ridicule and undermined the respect for free speech we hope to promote around the world," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a sponsor of the amendment to the State Department authorization bill. The amendment would "allow us to preserve our nation's security without eroding our principles," he said.
The conference report containing the new amendment was approved by the House Tuesday and was sent late Wednesday to the White House. The President is expected to sign the bill.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which lobbied for the change in the law, said that the bill promotes free speech by letting U.S. citizens hear other points of view.
But a State Department legal adviser said that the legislation would not give the government enough leeway to exclude activists who might harm U.S. interests.
Under the amendment, "no alien may be denied a visa or excluded from admission in the United States . . . because of any past, current, or expected beliefs, statements or associations which, if engaged in by a U.S. citizen in the United States, would be protected under the Constitution of the United States."
Some Persons Can Be Excluded
The government may continue to exclude persons for "foreign policy or national security" reasons. Moreover, applicants who have links to "terrorist" organizations or who are "official" representatives of "totalitarian states" may also be kept out.
Morton H. Halperin, director of the ACLU's Washington office, said that the amendment would prevent the State Department from keeping out European anti-nuclear activists or Central Americans who oppose the Administration's policies, as has been done in recent years.
"The American people ought to be able to hear anyone who wants to come here and speak," Halperin said. "This is not done for their sake, but ours."
Expects 'Legal Nightmare'
However, James G. Hergen, assistant legal adviser for consular affairs at the State Department, said that the measure was "slapped together" and will provoke a "legal nightmare" for government officials.
He said the Reagan Administration does not believe any alien should be excluded solely for his political views. When foreigners have been excluded under the McCarran-Walter Act, it has been because officials believed their activities here would hurt American interests, he said.
"This will be a nightmare for us. Every plaintiff (who is denied a visa) will charge that he is not being excluded for a valid reason," said Hergen, adding that only 20 to 50 aliens are now denied entry each year for ideological reasons.
In October, the Supreme Court heard the appeals of four foreign political activists who said they were unjustly denied entry to the United States. But the justices split 4 to 4 on the case and were unable to clarify the law. Their vote, however, upheld a lower court ruling that the government must provide more evidence of the national security threat posed by the visitors before it can deny them visas.