Today’s lesson in why you shouldn’t build a pervasive and all-powerful surveillance state because it might one day end up in the tiny hands of a Donald Trump comes courtesy of the news that Trump could resurrect a Bush-era registration system for Muslims entering the United States.
According to Reuters, which spoke with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an immigration hardliner and key member of Trump’s transition team, the new administration could reconstitute the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. The NSEERS program was implemented after 9/11 and required people from so-called “higher risk” countries to undergo interrogations and fingerprinting when they entered the United States and were required to periodically “check in” at government offices while they were here.
Trump’s transition team is reportedly considering using the registration program as a way to meet The Donald’s campaign promise to implement “extreme vetting” for Muslim immigrants. Kobach helped develop NSEERS as a member of Bush’s Department of Justice.
The only problem with The NSEERS program—which was shuttered in 2011—was that it was completely ineffective at its stated goal: catching potential terrorists.
During the nine years that the program was in place, more than 93,000 immigrants were screened and none—not a single one—was ever convicted on terrorism-related charges.
According to the ACLU, the program “singled out immigrant men and boys from designated countries for extraordinary registration requirements with DHS, ranging from an extra half-hour of screening on arrival, through tracking of whereabouts while in the United States, to limitations on points of departure.” The scale of profiling was something not seen in the United States since the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and “Operation Wetback” deportations to Mexico in the 1950s.
Even within the federal government’s immigration and anti-terrorism apparatuses, it was looked on as a mistake. James Ziegler, the former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Commission, told the New York Times that the program disrupted the United States’ relationship with immigrant communities after 9/11 and wasted resources that could have been better deployed elsewhere.
It’s not hard to figure out why the program failed to identify any potential terrorists. It was, by nature, targeting only law-abiding immigrants. As Reason’s Shikha Dalma wrote last year: “Expecting terrorists to voluntarily stroll to an immigration office to be fingerprinted and IDed is absurd, of course. So the entirely predictable upshot of the program was that although it managed to obtain not a single terrorism-related conviction, it did ruin plenty of lives of peaceful Muslims caught in its dragnet.”
People like Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, a refugee from Iraq whose story demonstrates exactly how the NSEERS program was abused by law enforcement. As a refugee, Habeeb was not required to register with NSEERS, but he was stopped by border agents while traveling via train from Seattle to Washington, D.C., in April 2003. The agents wrongly accused Habeeb of violating NSEERS mandatory registration and detained him for more than a week, causing him to lose the job that he was traveling to Washington, D.C., to accept. After a lawsuit from the ACLU, the federal government eventually admitted they were wrong to have detained Habeeb.
And people like Imad Daou, a Lebanese national and graduate student at Texas A&M who was engaged to be married when he was detained for two months and eventually deported for failing to register in the NSEERS program. Though the program was no good at catching terrorists, it did help authorities deport thousands of immigrants, like Daou, who had done nothing worse than overstay their visa.
The program was suspended by the Obama administration in 2011, but Obama didn’t fully dismantle it. Instead, Vox reports, Obama simply removed all 25 “high risk” countries from the list (24 of them were in the Middle East; North Korea was the other one). All President Trump would have to do is repopulate the list and NSEERS could be up and running again.
The NSEERS program was a failure, and an abusive one at that. Even so, Trump would be on solid legal ground to bring it back.
The ACLU has promised to challenge a resurrection of NSEERS, but previous legal challenges to the program did not get very far, as federal courts gave broad deference to the executive branch on setting immigration policies.