This is a peculiar moment in history, one in which we have come to expect the unexpected. Even so, I was surprised to see this: a reporter and a White House official debating poetry.
I'm referring, of course, to the dustup between CNN's Jim Acosta and administration adviser Stephen Miller over "The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus' famous sonnet, written in 1883 and inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty 20 years later.
Mr. Acosta took the position that the poem established policy: an American commitment to admit — in perpetuity and presumably ever increasing numbers — "your tired, your poor the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
Mr. Miller's rebuttal was entertaining and, I'd argue, he got the better of the exchange. But when it comes to immigration and citizenship policies, there's much more to discuss.
Reasonable people — not a growing demographic, I recognize — will disagree over whether the criteria for admittances should be stricter or looser, which immigrants are likely to bring benefits and which burdens, how many are too many and how many not enough.
But on at least a few points, reasonable people should agree. First, non-Americans have no right to become citizens of the United States just as Americans have no right to become citizens of Japan, Kenya or Saudi Arabia. Second, it's not feasible in the 21st century to take in all the tens of millions of "homeless, tempest-tost" who might like to put down roots in American soil.
We can probably agree, too, that it's a bad idea to welcome terrorists to our shores. But what anti-anti-terrorists, those who see terrorism as a legitimate form of "resistance" against those they regard as oppressors?
Political analyst Michael Barone has pointed out that, between 1890 and 1901, "anarchist terrorists murdered the president of France, the empress of Austria and the president of the United States." In response, anarchists were barred from the United States. Starting in the 1920s, communists also were excluded.
Some people oppose such "ideological exclusion." But is there a case to be made for opening America's doors to Nazis, white supremacists and skinheads? If not, then the real question is not whether to exclude but whom and based on adherence to which ideologies.
On the flip side, are there truths that would-be Americans should hold to be self-evident? Chapter 7 of the Policy Manual of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says that an "applicant for naturalization must show that he or she has been and continues to be a person attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States." Based on the evidence I've seen, this requirement is not being seriously enforced.
Last week in this space, I wrote about Ammar Shahin, the Egyptian-born imam in Northern California who has publicly prayed for Allah to "annihilate" the Jews "down to the very last one. Do not spare any of them. Oh Allah, make this happen by our hands." (He later apologized, saying he was "deeply sorry for the pain that I have caused.")
Other sermons he has given demonstrate that he has no attachment to "the principles of the Constitution." Quite the contrary: In a Nov. 11, 2016 sermon, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, he warned specifically against "democracy, the constitution, and all these matters that they fool you with."
He told his flock to be wary of laws made by "the hands of humans" rather than "revealed by God." He added: "These things, these matters, democracy, constitution, all of these things that people make today, are like the idols that the infidels used to worship."
And, earlier this year, the Islamic Center of Davis, where he serves as imam, hosted the "honorable scholar" Sheikh Muhammad Rateb Al-Nabulsi, who told the congregation that, under Islamic law, "homosexuality carries the death penalty."
Mr. Shahin first came to the United States in 1991. It is unclear whether he has become a naturalized American or, if not, on what basis he makes his home here. Such information is not available to the public. Repeated calls to the Islamic Center of Davis have gone unreturned.
But from what we now know about his beliefs, surely it's fair to ask whether he is the sort of person we should be inviting to join the American family. Some American Muslims think not.
"The community must weed out its own bigots if it wants fair-minded Jews and Christians to support it against the bigotry of others," Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan's Parliament and fellow at both the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Institute for Religious Freedom, wrote last week in the Huffington Post. American Muslims, she added, ought to be demanding that Imam Shahin be fired.
Sam Harris, an atheist philosopher of the moderate left, has argued: "You don't have to be a fascist or a racist or even a Trumpian to not want to import people into your society who think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet."
Which leads to this question: Since we can't and shouldn't take in everybody, why not give priority to immigrants who really do, as Lazarus phrased it, "yearn to breathe free," are strongly "attached" to the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and embrace the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence? Isn't that the foundation on which American citizenship — and identity — should be built?
What value or interest is served by awarding citizenship to those who preach intolerance and incite violence, want to impose their laws on us, and spread their bigotry and hatred among us? If Jim Acosta has answers to such questions — poetic or prosaic — I'm all ears.