Donald Trump's 'Muslim Registry' Explained
His administration might revive a Bush-era program that registered thousands of immigrants — most of them Muslim.
Donald Trump rode into office on a promise to step up scrutiny of immigrants who might come to the US to commit terrorist acts — especially Muslims. Now, thanks to transition team member and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, we’re getting a sense of what that might look like.
Kobach told Reuters that the Trump administration-in-waiting is considering reinstating a database of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries — something the federal government did from 2002 to 2011.
The Kobach proposal isn’t the same thing as the database of Muslim US citizens that Trump briefly floated (and then walked back) last year. It’s subtler — and that makes it a lot more plausible.
The difference between a “Muslim database” and a “database of particular people in the US from particular countries, which happen to be majority Muslim” might seem like a meaningless distinction, something to give a gloss of neutrality to something clearly discriminatory. But that gloss of neutrality matters a lot. It’s the reason the federal government was able to keep a database for a decade. And it’s probably the reason you might not have known that database existed at all.
The Bush-era registry that just happened to target majority-Muslim countries
Kobach knows exactly what he’s talking about. As a staffer in George W. Bush’s Justice Department after 9/11, he led the effort to put together the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS.
Under NSEERS, certain “foreign citizens and nationals” in the US had to come into immigration offices for fingerprinting, photos, and interviews — and then had to check in again at designated intervals.
But this “special registration” system was selective. It only applied to people on non-immigrant visas (including tourism and work visas). It only applied to men over the age of 16. And it only applied to people from a list of countries the Bush administration considered “havens for terrorists.”
There were 25 countries on the “special registration” list. Twenty-four were majority-Muslim countries. The 25th was North Korea.
Over the next decade, more than 80,000 men were put into NSEERS “special registration” database — Muslims and non-Muslims from suspected countries alike. But to Muslim American and civil rights groups, the fact that the Bush administration was responding to 9/11 by ordering thousands of Muslim men to show up to register with the government was de facto discriminatory.