The threat of radical Islam terrorism was a consistent rallying cry throughout Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, so much so that when reporters asked him in November 2015 if he saw a need for some sort of “Muslim database” in America, he refused to pooh-pooh the idea. He did appear to waffle the more he was questioned about it (and as comparisons were drawn with Nazi Germany), but Trump persisted in calling for “surveillance” and “watch lists” at the very least, finally settling on the position that a database of Syrian refugees would be required because “they are going to start pouring into this country.”
One year later, as president-elect Trump’s transition team mapped out the new administration’s opening moves in office, the idea of a Muslim database (or “registry”) was floated once again. Reuters reported on 15 November 2016 that this Trump adviser Kris Kobach (who currently serves as the Secretary of State of Kansas) brought it up this time:
To implement Trump’s call for “extreme vetting” of some Muslim immigrants, Kobach said the immigration policy group could recommend the reinstatement of a national registry of immigrants and visitors who enter the United States on visas from countries where extremist organizations are active.
Kobach helped design the program, known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, while serving in Republican President George W. Bush’s Department of Justice after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants.
Under NSEERS, people from countries deemed “higher risk” were required to undergo interrogations and fingerprinting on entering the United States. Some non-citizen male U.S. residents over the age of 16 from countries with active militant threats were required to register in person at government offices and periodically check in.
Although it is too soon to know if reinstating NSEERS will become policy, the idea won the instantaneous blessing of a prominent Trump supporter, former Navy SEAL and Great America PAC spokesperson Carl Higbie, who went so far as to compare it during an interview with the implementation of internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II:
Kelly: He’s trying to stop immigration into the country from countries where there are major terrorist issues until we can figure out what is going on, but this seems like something else, which is, if you’re coming over, this is what I’m reading, this is that, again, the Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach who helped write the immigration laws in Arizona said today that Trump’s policy advisors are drafting, they’re discussing drafting a proposal, to reinstate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.
Higbie: To be perfectly honest, it is legal, they say it will hold constitutional muster. I know the ACLU will challenge it, but I think it will pass, and we’ve done it with Iran back a while ago, we did it during WWII with Japanese, which, call it what you will, maybe it was wrong —
Kelly: Come on. You’re not proposing that we go back to the days of internment camps, I hope?
Higbie: No, I’m not proposing that at all, Megan. But what I am saying —
Kelly: You know better than to suggest that.
Higbie: We need to protect America first —
Kelly: That’s the kind of stuff that gets people scared, Carl.
Higbie: Right. But I’m just saying, there is precedent for it, and I’m not saying I agree with it, but in this case I absolutely believe that a regional-based —
Kelly: You can’t be citing Japanese internment camps for anything the president elect is going to do.
The discussion of internment camps and a Muslim registry drew immediate rebukes from civil rights groups, including the Council on Islamic-American Relations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Anti-Defamation League, whose CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, tweeted:
— ADL (@ADL_National) November 17, 2016