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Story highlights

Arjun Sethi: NSEERS program bred fear and upheaval for thousands living in the US

Trump advisers may be considering it but it never resulted in a single terror conviction, he writes

Editor’s Note: Arjun Singh Sethi is a civil rights writer, lawyer, and teacher based in Washington, D.C. He is currently director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, where he teaches courses on policing, surveillance and counter terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter @arjunsethi81.

(CNN) —  

This week, President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration adviser, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, proposed reinstating a national registry for immigrants from Muslim majority countries.

Kobach was referring to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, a program instituted in 2002 that allowed the US government to target certain non-citizens inside the country for enhanced scrutiny. Its most wide-reaching effect was to require men and boys 16 years of age and older with temporary visas from 25 specific countries to register at local immigration offices for fingerprinting, photographs, invasive interviews and follow-up at designated times.

Arjun Singh Sethi
Molly Kaplan
Arjun Singh Sethi

The program singled out non-citizens from Muslim-majority countries and most acutely impacted Muslims, Arabs and South Asians residing temporarily in the United States for education, employment or tourism purposes. Those who failed to comply with its measures could be arrested, deported or face criminal penalties.

By July 2003, less than a year after the program went into effect, 83,000 men had already registered, and 13,000 of them were slated for deportation.

Some cite this system as a responsible, necessary form of what Donald Trump might call “extreme vetting.” But it’s really racial and religious profiling.

The program required tens of thousands to register immediately with the government on the basis of who they were, not what they did. Entire nations and minority communities were stigmatized. Our government abandoned time-tested principles like the presumption of innocence, individualized suspicion and evidence of wrongdoing – embracing instead guilt by association, collective suspicion, and race and faith as proxies for crime.

If that doesn’t give you pause, this might: It failed completely to meet its objectives.

Like much of the post-9/11 war on terrorism, the program wasn’t effective. Not a single terrorism conviction was secured as a result of the registration program. It was mere security theater, a performance that cast racial and religious minorities as undeserving of fairness and dignity.

Muslims, in particular, routinely experience this mistreatment. Other counter-terrorism programs and policies – like suspicious activity reporting, watch lists, initiatives to counter violent extremism, and the Justice Department profiling guidelines – routinely single them out as inherently suspect.

In many cases, minor immigration violations led to deportations that cost people jobs and dreams.

Take the story of a 19-year-old athlete from Algeria who came to the United States to play tennis at Western Michigan University. As told to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, he was required to register as a student with temporary status, but due to a car accident, registered one day after the deadline.

His medical documentation didn’t matter. He was charged with failure to comply and placed in removal proceedings.

The program divided families as well. Countless Americans and documented immigrants saw their loved ones arrested, disappeared into our nation’s labyrinth immigration system and then deported. As the program endured, many foreign nationals from listed countries abandoned plans to come to the United States altogether, knowing the abuse that awaited.

This discriminatory and arbitrary profiling also had wide-ranging and devastating effects on communities of immigrants already here. A report from 2003 described an exodus from popular Muslim and Arab communities in the United States, including Chicago and Dearborn, Michigan.

The pattern is now familiar. Persecution fosters fear and intimidation, causing impacted groups to recoil, withdraw or even relocate.

Although the Department of Homeland Security delisted the 25 countries under the program in April 2011 – choosing to focus on individuals posing specific threats rather than communities at large – the regulations were left intact. A forthcoming letter from advocacy groups, of which I am a signatory, will ask President Obama to repeal the regulations so that the program in its current form is conclusively terminated.

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While the next administration could always promulgate new rules, any measures that legitimize blanket religious and racial profiling are reason for profound moral and constitutional concerns. Additionally, religious persecution may violate our international human rights obligations, which, as noted by Amnesty International, would make us guilty of conduct that we condemn around the world.

There will always be those who wish to turn back the hands of time and surrender to the politics of fear and nativism. Those who choose opportunism over principle, exclusion over inclusion. These forces will soon occupy the highest office in the land and will test the moral conviction of our republic. Kobach’s example shows us that the first test is already here.