What Was the U.S. Government’s Last Experience With a Muslim Registry?

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Along the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump promised a special registry and database tracking system for Muslims in the United States.

Although his spokesperson later claimed that he “never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion,” President-Elect Trump is currently being advised by the original architects and advocates of a registry for nationals of Muslim and Arab countries. One of these architects is Kris Kobach, the current Kansas secretary of state, whom he met with just weeks ago.

Kobach designed the post 9/11 special registration system for immigrants while working at the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush and many fear that Trump will reignite this constitutionally-questionable and discriminatory program.

The National Security Entry-Exit System (NSEERS) program was initiated exactly one year after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which functioned in two ways:

  1. First, as of September 11, 2002, selected individuals from five Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria) who arrived at ports-of-entry were fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed under oath. They were required to report to immigration authorities 30 days after arrival and annually if they remained, and depart the United States only through designated airports that could track their departure.
  2. The second phase was the domestic “call-in” application of NSEERS. Specifically, males ages 16 and older, who were already in the United States by virtue of a nonimmigrant visa and who were nationals of one of 25 Arab, South Asian, and Middle Eastern countries (plus North Korea), were required to appear at an Immigration and Naturalization Office (“INS,” the legacy immigration agency prior to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003). All registrants were given narrow windows of time in which to report, although information about the program was not widely disseminated and left many unclear about their obligations.

The fall out was that many registrants faced immigration consequences whether or not they complied with NSEERS. Any nonimmigrant subject to registration who failed to comply without “good cause” was considered to have failed to maintain his immigration status. Likewise, any registrant who failed to meet departure requirements was deemed to have entered the United States “to engage in unlawful activity.” There was also the possibility of facing criminal prosecution as one who “willfully fails or refuses” to register. But many of those who successfully complied with NSEERS faced immigration proceedings as well if their nonimmigrant visa had expired.

After a significant backlash, in December 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who inherited the program from INS, suspended the domestic registration requirements but allowed DHS to use its discretion to continue to selectively subject certain individuals to heightened scrutiny. In April 2011, DHS finally de-listed the 25 countries noting that other intelligence and tracking programs superseded the need for this program. However, the damage to many immigrants and their families had already been done– 83,000 individuals in the country registered and more than 13,000 were placed in deportation proceedings. The regulatory infrastructure for NSEERS remains in place to this day.

The idea of a religious or national origin registry that treats people categorically and institutionalizes racial profiling is antithetical to American values. If we learned anything after 9/11 it’s that demonizing an entire group of people does not heighten security but rather what is needed is strategic, targeted enforcement and stronger alliances within communities to foster collaboration and communication that can ultimately keep us all safer.

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