Farley Mowat, the great writer of books on the environment, passed away on Tuesday. He was best known for literary works like the classic Never Cry Wolf, which combined science and storytelling. What few realize, though, is that Mowat was also victim of archaic laws that allowed Congress to deny certain individuals entry to the U.S.
In 1985, during the Reagan administration, Mowat was on a book tour that included the United States when he was informed that he would not be allowed to enter. He was told that the reasons for the denial would not be revealed.
Mowat was blocked from coming here by an anti-subversive statute that was used to bar writers like Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez from entering even for brief appearances at universities and bookstores. It was a relic from the Cold War that seemed to fly in the face of American traditions of liberty.
Although the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law” abridging freedom of speech, the Supreme Court in the Chinese Exclusion cases in the 1800s ruled that most Constitutional protections do not apply to immigration law. Over the years, the Court has followed this racist precedent to rule that homosexuals can be excluded as well as people whose political ideas are unpopular with those in control of Congress.
The power to prevent people who are critical of the United States government from entering our country was such an embarrassment that the power was significantly restricted by Congress in the 1990s. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, however, elements of it returned. Since then, the government has moved away from barring environmental writers like Mowat in favor of banning Muslim scholars, most notoriously a professor at the University of Notre Dame.
As Thomas Jefferson told us, a vibrant country is not afraid of dissident ideas or of the people who express them.