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Muslim Americans Plan to Fight Back Against Trump's Proposed Registry

Last year, Trump announced his plans to register all American Muslims onto a database. For many Muslims, being a surveillance target is nothing new.
November 24, 2016, 8:30am
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Broadly.

One of Trump's main talking points during his presidential campaign was his plan to tackle the rising number of Muslims in the United States. His biggest and most ambitious effort would be creating a database to register Muslims in America—something he said he'd "absolutely" push forward should he enter office.

When Trump first proposed the registry in 2015, some began to compare his ideas to Nazi Germany's treatment of Jewish people. More recently, his plans have again drawn World War II comparisons again with many seeing echoes of past treatment of Japanese people in his plans to register and possibly create internment camps for Muslims. In fact, it's not only critics comparing his plans to Japanese internment camps —in an interview with Megyn Kelly, a Trump supporter referenced the camps as a positive defense, saying, "There is historical, factual precedent to do things are not politically popular and sometimes not right, in the interest of national security."

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While many of Trump's proposed policies—including banning Muslims and requiring them to register on a database—appear alarmingly Islamophobic and dangerous to many, some Muslim-Americans are not surprised, considering the treatment of Muslims in recent American history.

In 2002, the Kansas Secretary of State created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which made people entering the United States from certain countries (almost entirely Muslim majority countries) undergo interviews and check in habitually with government offices. According to Reuters, following pressure from civil rights groups who claimed the program primarily targeted Muslims, the system was discontinued in 2011.

Also in 2002, the NYPD's Intelligence Department launched an extensive effort to profile and surveil Muslims in New York City. According to the ACLU, the NYPD reportedly spied on Muslim communities using plainclothes officers and informants. They also allegedly gathered information about various Muslim ethnic groups, student associations, mosques and businesses—regardless of any prior suspicions. All the information, which included reports on thousands of New Yorkers who had never been accused of any illegal behavior, was stored on an intelligence database. The ACLU, along with other advocacy groups, reached a settlement with the NYPD in January 2016.

While some have drawn comparisons from the NYPD's 2002 project to Trump's proposed plans, Director of the ACLU National Security Project Hina Shamsi says they are reluctant to speculate. However, Shamsi argues that any proposal that would single out individuals based on race goes against the guarantee of equal protection of the American constitution. "What we can say is proposals go forward that single people out on their race and we plan to challenge that like we did in New York."

Both NSEERS and the NYPD project are no longer in existence—but there are still plenty of ways the government is putting Muslims on lists. In documents obtained by The Intercept, there are currently 680,000 people on a government Terrorist Screening Database. One of the highest concentrations of people on that list are in Dearborn, Michigan a city where one third of its residents are of Arab descent. Currently, no known "terrorist" has ever operated out of Dearborn.

Speaking to Robert McCaw, Director of Government Affairs of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Trump's potential registry is unconstitutional, but could easily be passed the same way previous databases worked. "I don't think the Trump administration could formally develop a registry of all Americans that are Muslim," He said. "But, they can slice and dice portions of the Muslim community into the federal terrorist screening database." According to McCaw, Muslim Americans and Muslims from other nations are aware they can and have been tracked in the past—ultimately, this effort isn't exactly a surprising move.

However, Muslim communities do hope to fight this as they have other databases and registries in the past. Echoing the ACLU's statements, McCaw believes federal laws could work in favor of Muslim communities. "Muslim and other civil liberty organizations will be relying on the constitution to prevent any outright acts of discrimination." McCaw also says CAIR and advocacy groups, "Will continue to push for more transparency and how we and other communities are databased through watch lists."

Another factor that might make others outside the Muslim community more ready to fight a Muslim database over other tracking methods that have previously been used, is the frank language used to target Muslims. According to a report by Vox, previous databases like NSEERS went under the radar of the general public because of using ambiguous language (the program was tracking "foreign citizens and nationals"). Currently, Americans are symbolically standing by Muslims who may be targets by using the promising to also register on the same lists.