Civil rights groups are asking President-elect Donald Trump to swat down discussion among his backers of reinstating a registry of Muslim immigrants, which one surrogate favorably compared to the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“NSEERS is a discredited program that was shelved in 2011 because it did not make our nation any more secure or safe, and only relied on the racial and religious profiling of Muslims traveling to the United States,” Robert McCaw, government affairs director for the Council on American Islamic Relations Government Affairs, told TPM on Thursday.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the State Department instituted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, a program that now-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach helped George W. Bush’s administration roll out. Under the program, male visitors and immigrants over the age of 16 from 25 countries, most of them majority-Muslim, were forced to register, sit for interviews and check in with U.S. officials about travel plans and changes of address.
Kobach, who claims to be serving as an immigration advisor to Trump’s transition team, told Reuters this week that he is pushing the President-elect to reinstitute the disbanded program.
As McCaw pointed out, the program failed to lead to a single terrorism conviction in its nine years of existence, even though some 93,000 immigrant men and teenagers registered with the system. NSEERS did lead to the unlawful detention of several foreign nationals, however. The United Nations and many U.S. civil rights groups condemned the program for unfairly singling out Muslims.
“What it communicates is that America is not a welcoming place, we do not trust the people we grant visas to, and we’re not secure in how we allow immigrants into our country,” McCaw said. “There are a number of potential criminal actors from every nation; why are we singling out Muslim males age 14 and above?”
“It’s the theater of security,” he added.
Anti-Defamation League president Jonathan Greenblatt voiced solidarity with Muslims targeted by the program on Thursday.
“If one day Muslims will be forced to register, that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim,” he said in a statement posted to the ADL’s official Twitter account.
— ADL (@ADL_National) November 17, 2016
Trump surrogate Carl Higbie, who expressed support for such a registry in a Wednesday interview on Fox News, said that the forced imprisonment of some 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States during World War II was a “precedent” for programs like NSEERS.
“It is legal. They say it’ll hold constitutional muster,” Higbie said. “I know the ACLU is going to challenge us, but I think it’ll pass. And we’ve done it with Iran back a while ago. We did it in World War II with Japanese.”
Higbie said that Trump “needs to protect America first” and he supports a registry if it would help the country “identify the true threat, and where it’s coming from.”
The U.S. government formally apologized for internment in 1988, acknowledging that it resulted from “racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Internment applied to American citizens, while NSEERS applied to foreign nationals visiting the U.S., rendering the programs fundamentally different, as McCaw pointed out.
He sighed heavily when asked about Higbie’s comments, calling internment a “horrible chapter of U.S. history that we need to learn from, not return to.”
“It’s disgraceful that this is even a conversation we’re having,” McCaw said. “It’s scary for a lot of people and it creates a lot of confusion. I had a Muslim grandmother the other day call me in confusion and ask if they had already started interning Muslims because she misheard someone at the mosque.”
McCaw put the onus on Trump to ignore the counsel of individuals like Kobach and to tamp down on any talk of internment immediately.
“Donald Trump needs to go talk to his base and say this is something I absolutely reject and would not be a part of my administration,” he said.