"Iftar in Patterson New Jersey" by U.S. Department of State.
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, the political rhetoric directed against Muslims from the Republican candidates for president has, once again, turned toxic. One idea now floating around Donald Trump’s campaign, initially posed first as a question to the candidate, is a special registry for Muslims in this country. The proposal has drawn loud opposition from civil libertarians and even from Trump’s Republican running mates. Jeb Bush called it “abhorrent,” and Marco Rubio labeled it “unnecessary.” What everyone seems to have forgotten, however, is that the US government already implemented a very similar program, and it was a disaster.
Begun in 2002, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) was a program that mandated all non-immigrant males—such as students, businessmen, and tourists—from 24 Muslim-majority countries (and North Korea) and over the age of 16 register with the government. The program, more commonly known as “Special Registration,” required these men to be fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned extensively.
Registrants also had to provide proof of their legal status to say in the country, proof of employment or study, and proof of their residential address. Some were questioned about their political or religious views in addition to supplying their credit card numbers and the names of American citizens who could vouch for their identity. All those subject to Special Registration could enter and exit the country only through designated ports of entry. They also had to re-register with the government annually and each time they entered the country. Some elements of Special Registration were eased in December 2003, but the program remained active for years.
Most Americans have probably never heard of Special Registration, but it was a massive burden on those in this country from the listed Muslim-majority nations. Hundreds of those who registered were subsequently arrested on alleged immigration violations, although many of these men complained that their status was in fact legal but their paperwork was incomplete due to backlogs with the immigration system. The program registered over 80,000 men and boys, with more than 13,000 placed in deportation proceedings.
Did Special Registration make us safer? Hardly. Not a single charge of terrorism was levied as a result of the program, which was costing the American taxpayer more than $10 million a year. It was also a massively inefficient use of resources. That was the conclusion of the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, which reviewed the program in February 2012 and found that the program’s databases were cumbersome and unreliable that it was difficult for people to follow registration requirements. Time and resources are better spent, the Inspector General concluded, with targeted interviews aimed at gathering specific intelligence. In other words, blanket surveillance and monitoring programs such as this one, or the one Trump supporters are currently promoting, are a massive waste of effort.
Special Registration was formally deactivated in April 2011, but the effects still linger. Many immigrant families in this country were torn apart by the program’s deportation zeal. With its blunt and byzantine reporting requirements, Special Registration also alienated Muslim communities from law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security. And while the program is no longer active, it remains in place and can be resurrected at any time.
When it announced the end of Special Registration enforcement, Homeland Security declared that it “seeks to identify specific individuals and actions that pose specific threats, rather than focusing on more general designations of groups of individuals, such as country of origin.” With this statement, Homeland Security was implicitly admitting that a program based on the blanket profiling of Muslims, in this case by their country of origin, was both wrong and ineffective. It was wrong then. It’s still wrong today.
Moustafa Bayoumi is associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He is author of, among other books, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.