The Bush-era Muslim registry failed. Yet the US could be trying it again

Fear, anger over potential 'Muslim registry'
Fear, anger over potential 'Muslim registry'

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Story highlights

  • NSEERS led to arrests, fines and deportation of violators
  • But it didn't lead to a single terrorism conviction

(CNN)Donald Trump and his supporters have been all over the place about his plan for surveilling Muslims. The President-elect once advocated for a Muslim database. Then he walked it back. Then his spokesman said Trump never proposed such a thing.

Then a source familiar with the incoming administration told CNN there will be a database and it'll be similar to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).
    NSEERS was a Bush-era program enacted shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It disproportionately targeted Arabs and Muslims and was a point of contention between rights groups and the federal government for nearly a decade.
    It was also a mega failure -- both strategically and, critics say, ethically.

    What is the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System?

    NSEERS, sometimes referred to as "Special Registration," was a program for registering non-citizen visa holders -- such as students, workers and tourists -- that President George W. Bush's administration enacted on September 10, 2002.
    The program had three parts. First, it required non-citizens to register when they entered the US -- a process that included fingerprinting, photo taking and interrogation. Second, it mandated that these people, as well as others already in the US, register and regularly check in with immigration officials. Third, it kept track of those leaving the country to make sure that temporary guests did not remain illegally. Violators were arrested, fined and even deported.
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    Who did NSEERS affect?

    Mostly Arabs and Muslims.
    All males 16 years of age or older from 25 countries were forced to register. Although no religious groups were explicitly targeted, all but one was a Muslim-majority country. The countries included: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. The sole exception: North Korea.
    Trump promised during his campaign to start a program that will register and track people from certain high-risk countries, such as Iran, Syria and Afghanistan.
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    What was the program's purpose?

    US officials at the time believed the program was necessary to identify and capture terrorists who might enter the country on false pretenses or already be living among the population.
    Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said the September 11 attacks exposed "the vulnerabilities of our immigration system" and made the case for NSEERS.
    "In this new war, our enemy's platoons infiltrate our borders, quietly blending in with visiting tourists, students, and workers," Ashcroft said. "They move unnoticed through our cities, neighborhoods, and public spaces. They wear no uniforms. Their camouflage is not forest green, but rather it is the color of common street clothing. Their tactics rely on evading recognition at the border and escaping detection within the United States. Their terrorist mission is to defeat America, destroy our values and kill innocent people."
    Trump has made similar arguments to ban and monitor Muslims, as well as oppose the US' resettlement of Syrian refugees.
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    How is NSEERS any different from what Trump is proposing?

    The President-elect has floated and walked back a number of controversial policies regarding Muslims, including a "temporary ban," a process of "extreme vetting" and even forcing all those living in the US to register with a national database. The flip-flops make it difficult to say for sure how his program would be different from NSEERS.
    His campaign promises hinted at a more draconian system that targets a specific religion, bans an entire group and imposes registration on American citizens. However, his transition team says that's not the case.
    A source who spoke to CNN said the program Trump is considering would register and track foreign visitors from high-risk countries, including but not limited to Muslims. The source did not specify which countries would be impacted, but said it would be a "moving target" given the diffuse terrorist threat.
    When asked about a complete ban on Muslims, the source said "it's something we're prepared for, but it's unlikely," before adding "all options are on the table."
    Trump spokesman Jason Miller denied that Muslims would be the target of a new program.
    "President-elect Trump has never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion, and to imply otherwise is completely false," Miller said. "The national registry of foreign visitors from countries with high terrorism activity that was in place during the Bush and Obama administrations gave intelligence and law enforcement communities additional tools to keep our country safe, but the President-elect plans on releasing his own vetting policies after he is sworn in."
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    Assuming Trump brings back NSEERS, what will be the likely impact?

    It would be pretty devastating for the Arab and Muslim communities.
    The previous program registered and monitored more than 80,000 men and boys, according to a 2012 report by Penn State Law and Rights Working Group, a coalition of local, state and national rights organizations. More than 13,000 of those registrants were placed in deportation proceedings, the report added.
    Rights groups slammed NSEERS for targeting Arabs and Muslims, striking fear into those communities, confusing registrants with ambiguous and complex instructions that resulted in needless penalties, and even uprooting and tearing families apart.
    "NSEERS targets only people from Arab and Muslim countries, along with North Korea, that is discrimination based on national origin. It is time to end the shame of NSEERS," Mary Rose Oakar, former president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said in 2007.
    NSEERS faced a number of legal challenges from affected individuals and rights groups, who called for its repeal. However, none ever achieved much success.
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    Okay, but it was pretty effective in stopping terrorists -- right?

    Actually, no. It didn't result in a single terrorism conviction.
    The American Civil Liberties Union told CNN this week that NSEERS "actually made genuine efforts at trying to combat terrorism more difficult by destroying relationships with immigrant communities and actually negatively impacting the ability of the federal government to cooperate with foreign governments in fighting terrorism."
    The program also ignored credible data from think tanks, including the New America Foundation, showing that most domestic terror attacks are carried out by US citizens.
    In 2011, nearly a decade after its creation, President Barack Obama's administration suspended NSEERS by taking all 25 countries off its list.
    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attributed the program's suspension to its redundancies and inefficiencies, not pressure from rights groups -- though it did welcome the decision.

    So how is Trump going to revive a dead program?

    Well, it never really died. By taking all 25 countries off the NSEERS' list, the DHS said it "effectively ended" the program. However, the structure remains.
    Furthermore, NSEERS was technically suspended because of administrative issues -- not legal action or rights concerns. So there's really nothing stopping Trump from adding countries to the list and reviving the program.
    Nevertheless, the ACLU has vowed to fight Trump's efforts.
    Citing the President-elect's controversial campaign promises, ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero recently wrote: "If you do not reverse course and instead endeavor to make these campaign promises a reality, you will have to contend with the full firepower of the ACLU at every step."