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The failed Bush-era policy that forced Muslims to register with the U.S. government

Counterproductive counter-terrorism.


Aaron Sankin


As Donald Trump storms his way at the top of the 2016 Republican presidential pack on an explicitly anti-Muslim platform, much of the former reality TV star’s rhetoric and policy proposals appear unprecedented.

Trump’s has called for banning all Muslims from entering the country, and he is at least willing to entertain the idea that American Muslims should carry identification cards listing their religion and register in a government database. Many of Trump’s critics have derided these ideas as un-American.

Yet, it wasn’t long ago that the government instituted a program not all that dissimilar from one of the ideas Trump has publicly mulled, if not fully endorsed: a controversial program that registered and tracked tens of thousands of Muslims living in the United States. 

The program broke up families by triggering a wave of mass deportations and instilled fear throughout Muslim communities across the country, all while proving itself wholly ineffective at accomplishing its primary task: catching terrorists.

Muslim registration by another name

Nine months after the towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave a speech

“In this new war, our enemy’s platoons infiltrate our borders, quietly blending in with visiting tourists, students, and workers. They move unnoticed through our cities, neighborhoods, and public spaces,” Ashcroft said. “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.”

“They wear no uniforms. Their camouflage is not forest green, but rather it is the color of common street clothing.”

This ominous warning was the preface to major announcement. The George W. Bush administration was enacting a new program, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, designed to keep Americans safe from terrorism. NSEERS was designed to let the federal government keep better track of people it believed might be terrorists. In practice, it mainly served to make life just that much more difficult for a lot of innocent Muslims.

Unlike recent policy proposals by candidates like Trump, NSEERS didn’t explicitly target people of a specific religion. Rather, it used a proxy. The program targeted people from 25 countries, such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Lybia, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. All except one of the nations included on the NSEERS list, North Korea, are majority Muslim. 

Additionally, the rules didn’t apply to everyone from those countries living in the United States, only men over 16 on non-citizen visas, like students or tourists. It affected both new entrants to the country and people already living in the United States.

Put into effect one year to the day after 9/11, NSEERS had a number of components. First, targeted individuals were required to go through additional security screenings when entering the United States, which included being fingerprinted and photographed. They were also required to submit to mandatory, in-person check-ins for intensive questioning about their activities with immigration officials 30 days after entering the country. The check-ins repeated annually, and those individuals had to inform officials every time they had a change of address.

Failure to comply with any of these rules constituted a misdemeanor criminal offense and a violation of the terms of someone’s visa, meaning it could result in their deportation.

While the memory of NSEERS has largely faded, the program was controversial in its day. “[NSEERS] is one of the most shameful chapters of American history,” Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Daily Dot. “[It was] an executive branch post-9/11 reaction that made people from predominantly Muslim countries to go through an arcane series of registration and other screening mechanisms. if they didn’t, they were punished. Thousands were hit with civil deportation consequences.”

Intentional human-rights observers have also slammed NSEERS. “After 9/11, the U.S. government has increasingly used immigration enforcement as a proxy to target Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities,” Margaret Huang, executive director of the Rights Working Group, said in a statement. “The conflation of immigration law with ‘national security’ concerns has resulted in immigration enforcement programs that foster illegal racial profiling for immigrant communities across the board.”

It wasn’t just that critics of NSEERS thought the program discriminated against large swaths of people based on their ethnic characteristics. It also didn’t work.

‘We got nothing out of it’

During the first year of the program’s existence, around 85,500 people registered under NSEERS. Government officials indicated that fewer than a dozen were found to have ties to terrorism. Even so, not a single person was ever prosecuted on terrorism charges based on information collected under the program, and governmental claims about its effectiveness were directly challenged by the 9/11 Commission called by President Bush.

The program never produced direct benefits in terms of bolstering national security, experts say, but it did expend vast quantities of government resources. “The opportunity cost of it was enormous,” said Rickerd. “These were countless hours of law enforcement time spent on people who had no individual reason to be on the authorities’ radar. This was an enormous loss of resources that could have been better deployed.”

“This was an enormous loss of resources that could have been better deployed.”

James Ziglar—who served as the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the precursor to the Department of Homeland Security, when the program was being planned—told the New York Times in 2004 that he had serious concerns about about how NSEERS would likely offer little in terms of return on investment. “The question was, ‘What were we going to get for all of this?’” Ziglar said. “The people who could be identified as terrorists weren’t going to show up. This project was a huge exercise and caused us to use resources in the field that could have been much better deployed. … As expected, we got nothing out of it.”

In a deep dive into the program’s myriad problems for the American Prospect, author Alex Gourevitch interviewed Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez. According to Martinez, individuals from NSEERS countries who were already in the U.S. and had plans to carry out an attack would not voluntarily register with the government. “If you knew the history and were halfway intelligent, you’d know that none of [the Sept. 11 terrorists] were doing what they were supposed to do,” Martinez told Gourevitch. “Three had overstayed their visas.”

Despite the protestations of people like Ziglar, the prevailing attitude in Washington, D.C., during the years immediately following the 9/11 attack centered around doing whatever was necessary to stop further terrorist attacks regardless of cost or efficiency. Counter-arguments were brushed off as not understanding the new reality 9/11 had created.

One of the biggest problems with NSEERS was that the government failed to explain precisely what people had to do to comply with the rules. The Department of Justice didn’t issue a single press release or post information on its website about the program until 10 days before the first registration deadline. As Gourevitch noted, one of the notices was incorrectly translated into Arabic to indicate that people under 16 had to register, even though the program only targeted people over that age.

There was little consistency, creating confusion that often led the detainment of U.S. citizens and others who had done nothing else wrong.

During the check-ins, interviewees were sometimes allowed to bring a lawyer; other times those requests were denied. There was little consistency, creating confusion that often led the detainment of U.S. citizens and others who had done nothing else wrong.

While NSEERS failed to catch any terrorists, the program did trigger a wave of deportations. During the first year of its existence, the government initiated deportation proceedings against 13,400 individuals identified by the program.

These deportations, along with the larger shadow of suspicion that fell over American Muslims after 9/11, led to a hollowing out of many of their communities. A 2003 Washington Post story detailed an exodus from Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan neighborhood. “The mosque on Coney Island Avenue is one-third empty on Fridays. Restaurants close at 10pm. Hairdressers and pizza joints report a 40 percent drop in business,” the Post reported, noting a corresponding housing boom in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. “…The United States has deported enough illegal immigrants to Islamabad to fill four jetliners.”

Muslims were not the only people whose lives NSEERS upended. Imad Daou is a Lebanese Christian who came to the United States to obtain graduate degrees in information systems from Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, which is right along the U.S.-Mexico border.

While in school, Daou got engaged to a Maria, a Mexican-American student getting her MBA at the university. Daou initially registered under NSEERS when he first entered the country, but the immigration official at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston never informed him about his further obligations to help the government keep tabs on his whereabouts, which he was first supposed to do 30 days after entering the country. Completely unaware, Daou missed all of his appointments.

Daou repeatedly crossed the board into Mexico to visit his soon-to-be in-laws. During his fourth crossing, the night before Thanksgiving, DHS officials detained Daou for neglecting to register and therefore violating the terms of his visa. He spent two months in a detention center, which is where he and Maria were married. The following February, Daou was deported back to Lebanon. His professors allowed him to take his final exams remotely. He made straight As.

Another example: Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, a Iraqi refugee who came to America after being imprisoned and tortured by the Ba’athist regime of former Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein, was taking a cross-country train trip from Seattle to Washington, D.C., when he was detained for failing to live up to his obligations under NSEERS. Refugees like Habeeb weren’t required to register under NSEERS, but the immigration officials who detained him didn’t seem to know that. Taken into custody and unable to go into work, Habeeb lost his job. The government initiated deportation proceedings against him, and it was only through a lawsuit filed by the ACLU that Habeeb was able to ultimately stay in the U.S. He ultimately received a formal apology from the U.S. government.

Counterproductive counter-terrorism

Programs like NSEERS make targeted communities “feel like they are persona non grata in the United States,” Greg Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a private bar association for legal professional working in the immigration field, told the Daily Dot.  “They feel like they are alienated. They become more isolated, and that’s exactly what ISIS or any terrorist organization wants is—for the social fabric that makes America strong to disintegrate.” 

“As law enforcement officers will tell us, we need those communities to be effective at combating incidents of crime or terrorism.”

“We start to point fingers and accuse people in our midst of possibly being terrorists. And they start to hide,” Chen added. “You already see this happening, where hate-violence against Muslims and people who appear to be Muslim or Arab is already on the rise. As law enforcement officers will tell us, we need those communities to be effective at combating incidents of crime or terrorism.”

It took less than a year before the first pillar of NSEERS crumbled. In 2003, the Bush administration eliminated the requirement for regular in-personal meetings. Yet, all the other aspects of the program—from the collection of biometric information to limits on the places where targeted individuals could enter and exit the country—remained in place.

“I think the authorities undoubtedly realized that [having people register in person] was an inefficient program,” the ACLU’s Rickerd said.

Consequences relating to NSEERS’s roll-out reverberated for nearly a decade. People who didn’t sign up for the program initially, possibly because of the lack of clarity about how it was explained to the public, were still in violation of the terms of their visa and could still be deported.

There were multiple legal challenges to NSEERS, but all ultimately failed. In 2008, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a challenge to the program’s constitutionality. “One major threat of terrorist attacks comes from radical Islamic groups,” the court found. “The September 11 attacks were facilitated by violations of immigration laws by aliens from predominantly Muslim nations. The program was clearly tailored to those facts.”

It was only when the administration of President Barack Obama took office that the rest of the NSEERS finally wound down. In 2011, the program was effectively shuttered—although the reality is a little more complicated.

Not only has the massive trove of information collected by NSEERS not been purged from government databases, but the program is still technically on the books; government officials simply removed all 25 counties from the NSEERS list. The rule is still in effect, there’s just no one to whom is currently applies. Rickerd warned that the program is ready to be activated at a moment’s notice, if an administration occupying the executive branch so desires.

The return of NSEERS?

“My first reaction [to Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States] was that this is consistent with everything Trump has been doing,” Muzaffar Chishti, director of the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank devoted to the study of immigration issues, told the Daily Dot. “This is an out-of-size announcement with only one intention—to appeal to his base.” 

Chishti argues that, under current U.S. law, most Islamophobic policies advocated by Trump are illegal. The political establishment’s universal condemnation of the Republican frontrunner—from top 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the left to former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney on the right—made Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric seem like an aberration.

However, NSEERS not being all that far in the rear view mirror is an indication that the xenophobic sentiments espoused by Trump are always bubbling just under the surface of American politics, ready to reappear when the public gets scared. A recent poll showed that Americans’ fears of terrorism are as high now as they were immediately following the 9/11 attacks.

That fear manifest itself in a bill—the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015—that sailed through the House of Representatives earlier this month by a vote of 407-19.

The bill, which still needs the approval of the Senate before heading to the president’s desk, would trigger a shift the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of 38 nations to reside the United States for fewer than 90 days without first procuring a visa. The bill passed by the House creates an exemption requiring certain citizens of those nations—a group that includes stalwart U.S. allies like France and the United Kingdom—to obtain visas if they’ve traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan within the past five years. The bill also tightened entrance requirements for citizens of those countries.

Rickerd warned that the program is ready to be activated at a moment’s notice, if an administration occupying the executive branch so desires.

Chen argues not only that the bill would adversely affect journalists and humanitarian aid workers who have traveled to those nations, but it also, just like NSEERS, assigned collective blame and scrutiny to a group of people who have done nothing individual wrong or suspicious—even people who just happen to have a Syrian or Iraqi parent, but have lived their entire lives in another country. “The concern we have is that it’s discriminatory in its nature and the targeting of people from those countries is not going to be an effective way to combat terrorism,” he charged, nothing that someone likely to go sign up as a foreign fighter is unlikely to self-report as having visited one of those specific countries.

Chen was disappointed that the visa waiver bill passed the House with so little opposition, but he wasn’t particularly surprised. The echoes of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, are still ringing in the ears of lawmakers who feel an acute pressure to take action.

While the bill’s sponsor sent their legislation through all the appropriate committees months prior to its passage in the house, the language about changing important elements of the visa waiver system were added much more recently and hadn’t been reviewed by a House committee or debated on the floor of Congress.

“I’ve spoken personally with members of Congress [after the vote] who didn’t really know the bill would have this kind of discriminatory impact,” Chen said. “They thought it was extremely troubling and asked me to send them the language [they had just voted on]. My response is, ‘What do you mean you need me to send you the language, you already voted for it!’”

“That,” he concluded, “is a huge problem.”

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