With Donald Trump becoming president in a few short days, many groups of Americans are fearful of their futures. Muslim Americans have the specter of a threat hanging over their heads: a Muslim registry. This may seem far from constitutional and invoke memories of Jewish registries or lists during the Holocaust, so it’s important to understand it well and how it may play out in a Trump presidency.
First and foremost, the registry has a name: the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) and it was created after 9/11 when Muslims were suspected of terrorism every single minute of the day. I remember my husband going to get registered and fingerprinted, because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen at that time. I remember the harassment he faced at airports and other public places, where the stress of being on a list became all too real.
Personal anecdotes aside, the fact that registries like NSEERS have a powerfully negative impact on innocent people is well documented. A 2012 report The NSEERS Effect: A Decade of Racial Profiling, Fear and Secrecy by the Working Rights Group at the University of Pennsylvania shows that families have been broken apart when male members are deported to countries of origin where they have no friends or relatives, and harsh immigration punishments such as loss of benefits have been meted out to countless Muslim Americans over the years. The full report is available here.
The bottom line is that programs like NSEERS, whether they’re called a counter-terrorism database or a registry — or even just extreme vetting based on country of origin — are virtually useless in achieving their goals. No leads are ever attained, simply because only law-abiding Muslims will voluntary sign themselves up.
So it is no wonder that civil rights activists within and outside of the Muslim community have been calling for the dismantling of NSEERS for years. In November 2016, almost 200 organizations under the umbrella of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to dismantle NSEERS, citing gross violations of civil rights. In December, President Obama finally dismantled the program, creating additional obstacles in Trump’s plans for any future registries.
But while we laud the dismantling, we should be under no misconception that discrimination against Muslims will be checked due to President Obama’s actions. There are countless other ways Muslim Americans in the U.S., as well as visitors from Muslim-majority countries, will continue to feel the heat as a result of policies that violate civil liberties:
- The No Fly List is still active and flourishing, with countless Muslims deprived of their constitutional rights to fly. The worst aspects of this program are that, unlike NSEERS, it is shrouded in secrecy. You don’t voluntary register for it, so you have no idea if you are on the list until you are taken away for interrogation at an airport. Further, the government requires nothing more than “reasonable suspicion” to put someone on this watch list, which results in mostly innocent people, including children, to be included.
- Spying and surveillance programs are still active under the radar, such as the CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs that call on local community members to identify individuals with radical views. In fact, many Muslims have reported being forced to spy for CVE in order to be taken off the No-Fly List, or to receive citizenship. Here’s one account.
- Social media monitoring is a relatively new tactic to spy on the social media accounts of people, both American and otherwise, suspected of ties to terrorism. Congress is in the process of passing a bill forcing tech companies to monitor their networks for any discussions that fall under the parameters of extremist speech. ACLU and others are concerned about the potential ramifications of this measure on free speech and censorship. ACLU’s post about this matter is here.
So what can be done? Firstly, let’s not applaud the dismantling of NSEER as though it signals the end of all our troubles from a civil liberties standpoint. While President Obama did a very timely and needful thing by dismantling it, there are other programs, like the No-Fly List, with even less oversight that still need our attention. Further, NSEERS itself can be resurrected at any time by a future president, or another similar program can be initiated in the face of terrorism.
It is imperative that we remain vigilant for discriminatory programs against Muslims, whether it’s a new registry/database or a revival of old policies. We must support organizations such as the ACLU, which are determined to monitor government activities and take them to account for any breaches of laws.
Lastly, we must encourage Muslim Americans who have been discriminated against or profiled to seek justice through the legal court system and inform the press about such events so that there remains a system of checks and balances.