Benjamin P. Stern, Esq.
Founder & CEO, IvyAchievement
Member, New York State Bar and United States Courts for the Eastern District and Southern District of New York
As a lawyer, the founder of an university admissions consulting company that has served dozens of international students, and a concerned American citizen, I have been following the political situation in the United States very closely. There is a lot of misinformation circulating, especially in international sources. The purpose of this Guide will be to highlight and explain developments in American politics and policy that may affect current and potential international students. I will use “primary sources” (for example, official government documents and organizations’ own statements) where possible. These posts will be updated as necessary to keep them current.
This post is geared toward international students, international applicants, and American readers who would like to know more about how the United States government works. Most of this content will be familiar to those who have taken a class in American government. You still may learn something!
The United States Constitution outlines the structure and function of the three branches of American government. A legislative branch to create laws, an executive branch to enforce the laws, and a judicial branch to interpret laws and settle disputes (both civil and criminal). The United States Constitution enshrines two important principles: a separation of powers among the three branches so that it is clear who can do what, and a system of checks and balances put in place so that no branch of government can wield too much power. An example of separation of powers is that only the legislative branch can impose taxes, while the executive branch can set foreign policy. As a check on the legislative power, the president can veto any legislation passed by the legislative branch, and as a balance to the president’s veto power, the legislative branch can override the president’s veto with a two-thirds majority. There are many more examples.
The United States was founded by 13 British colonies that declared themselves as “states” and united to form a common country: hence the name “United States of America.” Each state had its own economic and social interests. As believers in democratic values, the “framers” of the United States Constitution (the political philosophers, statesmen, and authors involved) wanted to provide majority rule and planned to implement a system of proportional representation. However, a purely representative form of government would have resulted in the interests of people in smaller states getting less attention. As part of the “Great Compromise,” the framers created two “houses” of the American legislative branch: the House of Representatives (informally called the “House”), whose members are elected by citizens in geographical districts divided by population, and a Senate in which each state would have two “at-large” representatives. Together, the two are called “Congress,” although the term “congressman” and “congresswoman” refer to a member of the House of Representatives only.
Formally, members of the House of Representatives are called representatives and are titled in media with “Rep.” Members of the Senate are called “senators” and are titled in media with “Sen.” Sen. Kamala Harris (D – CA) means Kamala Harris is a senator from California and is a member of the Democratic Party. Rep. Paul Ryan (R – WI) means that Paul Ryan is a representative from Wisconsin and a member of the Republican Party. There are 435 representatives (set by law independent of total American population) and 100 senators from 50 states.
The executive branch consists of a multitude of agencies that administer the functions of the United States government and enforce its laws. The executive branch is led by the president. The president appoints members of his or her cabinet, who oversee various agencies of the executive branch. Cabinet members must be approved by the Senate. Several executive branch departments affect international students and international applicants to the United States:
The Vice President is a member of the Cabinet but has very few powers of his or her own. The primary role of the Vice President is to step in as president if the president is incapacitated, dies, or resigns from office. The Vice President also casts the deciding vote in case there is a tie in the Senate.
Presidential elections are conducted using the Electoral College. In this system, each state is assigned a number of electors equal to the total number of representatives and senators. Each state conducts its own election and residents of each state cast their ballots for a “ticket” consisting of a presidential and vice-presidential candidate. In most states, the winner of the greatest number of votes earns the votes of the electors, who cast their final votes in December. There are 538 electoral votes (435 representatives, 100 senators, and three for Washington, D.C., the United States capital, which is not located in any state). To win the election, a candidate needs to earn at least 270 electoral college votes.
The judicial branch consists of most of the “federal courts” of the United States. (There are also courts that are part of the executive branch, but they are largely irrelevant to international students.) Federal courts decide both criminal and civil cases (lawsuits).
Federal civil courts are courts of limited subject-matter jurisdiction, meaning there are only certain kinds of cases they can hear. One of the most important roles of the judicial branch is determining whether the laws passed by the legislative branch are constitutional. If a law is unconstitutional, it is “struck down” and cannot be enforced. The judicial branch also determines whether the actions of federal government officials are legal. Actions of federal officials may be determined to be illegal if they violate various laws passed by Congress, including civil rights laws, or if they violate constitutional rights.
There are three levels of federal courts:
All federal judges in district and circuit courts and the justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president and confirmed by a majority vote in the Senate. Notably, unlike other government employees, they serve for life or until they retire. Because the Supreme Court is so powerful and the fact that there are only nine justices, appointing a Supreme Court justice is one of the most important actions a president can take. The process is often fraught with political controversy and maneuvering.
When the original Thirteen Colonies unified to form the United States, they each wanted to retain their own sovereignty in some way. Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, there was public debate between federalists, who favored a strong national government, and anti-federalists, who thought the role of the central government should be minimal.
Throughout American history, there has been tension between those who support “states’ rights” and those who prefer the Federal government’s laws
The Democratic Party is conventionally characterized as “liberal” and supports government-sponsored social welfare programs, stricter regulations of business, and higher taxes to fund government spending including on public education. For several decades, the Democratic Party has been considered more “socially liberal,” taking stances in support of protection of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) rights, affirmative action in schools, the right of women to abort pregnancies, and stricter gun control. The Democratic Party also tends to align with labor unions, including teachers’ and graduate students’ unions.
Finally, the Democratic Party tends to support liberal immigration policies and does not support policies that target law-abiding “illegal aliens” (often called “undocumented residents”) for deportation. Many in the Democratic Party even support “sanctuary cities” whose law enforcement officers do not report crimes committed by non-citizens to federal authorities. Democrats are more likely to argue that non-citizens should be afforded the same legal rights as citizens, including the right to legal counsel, the right not to be detained unreasonably, and the right to a speedy trial.
Former president Barack Obama is a member of the Democratic Party, as are former president Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, who was former First Lady (wife of the president), a United States Senator, Secretary of State, and the 2016 presidential candidate. Hillary Clinton’s opponent during the 2016 election was Senator Bernie Sanders, who was an independent (not a member of either party) until he ran for the presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton.
Other famous Democrats include Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), who served from 1933 until his death in 1945 (longer than any other president) and led the United States during World War II, and John F. Kennedy (JFK), who took office in 1961 and was assassinated in 1963. JFK International Airport is named after him and the Kennedy family is still active in politics.
The Republican Party is conventionally characterized as “conservative.” The Republican Party tends to oppose the expansion of civil rights laws to cover LGBT rights, increased spending on social welfare programs, and laws that regulate the sale or ownership of firearms. Republicans tend to oppose using federal money for certain actions, such as contraception and abortion, that they feel violate certain values, largely derived from Christianity.
Republicans tend to support lower taxes as well as less regulation of businesses and financial institutions. Some Republicans also tend to support programs that benefit private schools over public schools.
Notably, Republicans tend to take a harsher stance toward illegal immigration and a “hawkish” (more confrontational) approach to national security, leading to stricter immigration policies.
Famous Republicans include 16th president Abraham Lincoln, who served from 1861 until his death in 1865 and led the United States during the American Civil War, 40th president and former governor of California (and actor) Ronald Reagan, who served from 1981-1989 and led the United States during the end of the “Cold War” with the Soviet Union, and 42nd President and former governor of Texas George W. Bush, who served from 2001-2009, led the United States during the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Republican Party currently has majorities in both houses of Congress, but there has been political upheaval recently due to the 2016 election. There are currently several factions within the Republican party. Two of these factions are noteworthy for international students:
The Christian right refers to those who believe the United States should be guided by Christian values, specifically Evangelical Christian values. Those on the Christian right oppose LGBT rights and may even support criminalizing homosexual activity. They oppose abortion in any form and tend to oppose contraception as well. Many on the Christian right would prefer that Christianity be made the official religion of the United States, although that is against the Constitution.
In accordance with the tenets of Evangelical Christianity, many on the Christian right believe those who do not practice Christianity are “damned” and so support efforts to convert non-Christians. Some on the Christian right believe that the “Christian world” is at war with the “Islamic world,” and Islam is a force to be defeated. Those on the Christian right tend to oppose immigration from non-Christian countries and have mixed feelings toward immigration from Latin America, which is largely Catholic.
The alt-right refers to a relatively new movement that encompasses a range of various positions. In general, the alt-right is nationalistic, putting American interests ahead of others’. Unlike the position the Republican Party has taken for several decades, the alt-right is strongly protectionist, favoring economic policies that encourage the use of labor of United States citizens, including import tariffs and restrictions on immigration. Those on the alt-right generally believe that non-citizens, especially illegal immigrants, are entitled to minimal protection under American law.
The most prominent voices on the alt-right are white, and those considered to be on the alt-right tend to favor policies that tend to benefit white people over others. Several members characterized as alt-right have supported principles of “white supremacy” (the belief that white people are superior to others and ought to have political power) and/or “white nationalism” (the belief that white people have a right and/or duty to politically unite and assert their interests over others’). However, not all members of the alt-right believe in white supremacy or white nationalism.
Those on the alt-right tend to oppose women’s rights movements, affirmative action, or any liberal “identity politics.” The alt-right tends not to be vocal on same-sex marriage or drugs, preferring the government refrain from regulating personal activities.
The alt-right encompasses a range of religious views. Some of the alt-right is overtly Christian, but many believe in a strong separation of Church and State. However, the alt-right tends to be suspicious of immigration by Muslims and Islamophobia is very common. Many on the alt-right see accepting refugees and migrants from Islamic countries as opening up the doors to violence and terrorism, and in support point to countries in Europe that have seen an increase in violent crime after admitting Muslim migrants.
Donald J. Trump started working in his family’s real estate business in the 1970s and became a real-estate magnate in the United States by the mid-1980s. He is one of the most recognized celebrities in the United States. Trump’s companies own or control hotels, casinos, clubs, and condominium buildings around the country and several abroad. Donald Trump produced and starred in the television show The Apprentice and its spin-off The Celebrity Apprentice, dismissing contestants with his signature “you’re fired.” Trump has had several other businesses, many of which branded with the “Trump” name.
Before 2015, Donald Trump’s political activity consisted mostly of developing positive relationships with politicians of both parties. However, during Barack Obama’s presidency, Trump became an outspoken member of the “birther” movement, which believes that President Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore, ineligible to be president.
Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States in June 2015 for the election to be held in November 2016. Trump’s candidacy was not taken seriously by most in the media. Trump entered the Republican primary race with 16 other candidates. During debates, he attacked many of the other candidates in colorful ways. Despite a series of gaffes, statements, and policy positions that would have doomed other candidates’ campaigns, Trump defeated the competition won the nomination.
Trump then engaged in a general election battle with Hillary Clinton. Despite several setbacks, Trump recovered against predictions and was elected president on November 8, 2016. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes but still won the Electoral College 306-232.
Vice President Michael “Mike” Pence, former governor of Indiana, was Donald Trump’s running mate. He is known as a Christian conservative.
All laws of the United States start out as “bills.” A bill is a proposed law.
An executive order in an order by the president directly to an agency or agencies of the executive branch. Usually the executive branch carries out its functions without direct orders from the president, but sometimes the president wants to implement a policy change or exercise some authority provided by law.
The use of executive orders has increased in recent decades, with presidents typically issuing around 30-40 executive orders per year.
Executive orders can be controversial because the president may direct law enforcement not to focus on enforcing certain laws. This is because the president swears to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” and the Constitution requires that he or she carry out the laws. Executive orders that contravene legislation passed by Congress or the Constitution can be challenged in courts.
Our next article will focus on Donald Trump’s executive orders regarding immigration and national security.