WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has dismantled an inactive anti-terrorism program in an apparent attempt to block the incoming administration from using it against Muslim immigrants and travelers in the United States.
One of President-elect Donald Trump’s most controversial moves during his campaign was his promise to build a registry of Muslims living in the United States, but a similar program to track immigrants and visitors has existed in the country for the past decade.
Established under President George W. Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System required men over 16 from 24 Muslim-majority countries and North Korea to register with the Department of Homeland Security upon entering the United States.
Under pressure from civil liberties activists and advocates for immigrants, DHS suspended NSEERs in May 2011. On Dec. 22, Obama acted to formally end the program.
“The Department of Homeland Security is removing outdated regulations pertaining to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration Systems (NSEERS) program, with an immediate effective date,” Neema Hakim, a DHS spokesperson, confirmed in an interview with CNN.
Despite tens of thousands of Muslim men being forced to register, Chris Rickerd, a representative of ACLU Washington’s Legislative Office, observed that not a single terrorist incident had been prevented by the program.
“The failed NSEERS program has rightly been suspended at long last, but not before it inflicted misery upon tens of thousands and weakened the United States’ commitment to the principles of equality and due process,” Rickerd noted in 2011 on the ACLU’s website.
Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of the program and Obama’s efforts to dismantle it, it is still possible that it could be resurrected in the future, as the Independent’s Ben Kentish noted on Dec. 23.
“Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State who is an adviser to Mr Trump and has been tipped for a job in the incoming administration, suggested [Trump’s Muslim registry] could be enacted by bringing back the NSEERS system the Obama team are now scrapping,” Kentish reported.
Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, praised Obama’s decision to end NSEERS in an interview on Wednesday with Democracy Now! He also suggested Trump would face stiff resistance if he tried to revive the program.
“I think that if he does resurrect it, he will face serious resistance, you know, in the courts,” he said, adding:
“I think that a registry that is directed at members of one religion, whether it’s directed at that religion expressly or just implicitly, will face constitutional scrutiny. And I think that I would be surprised if organizations like the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights didn’t walk into court on day one and challenge that kind of thing.”
Even without NSEERS, though, Trump stands to inherit an expansive surveillance state, the powers of which expanded dramatically under Obama. In one recent development, non-citizens entering the United States are now asked to share their social media accounts with border officials. Jaffer suggested the program, which is currently voluntary, was unlikely to stop terrorists but could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of innocent people around the world.
“Somebody who thinks about criticizing American foreign policy in a tweet may now hesitate before doing it,” Jaffer said.
Trump’s transition team has already shown a particular interest in government programs designed to counter so-called “violent extremism,” by demanding to know the names of all officials involved. These programs have frequently been used against innocent Muslims and Muslim communities.
And whether or not Trump keeps his promises to target Muslims, the president-elect will have terrifying, largely unchecked surveillance powers which he could potentially use to track minorities or suppress dissenting voices in America.
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