We tried registering tens of thousands of Muslims once before, and it did not end well

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Donald Trump’s endorsement of a registry to track Muslims in the United States has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum, with many seeing similarities to the monitoring of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. But you don’t have to journey that far back in history to find an example of a similar policy right here: Less than 15 years ago, the United States registered people coming into the country using a system that, at least in the eyes of many critics, was designed to monitor and keep track of Muslims.

In 2002, not long after 9/11, the George W. Bush administration created a program within the Justice Department, later moved to the Department of Homeland Security, known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS. Among its more troubling provisions was something called the special registration program, which monitored men from certain countries who entered the country temporarily, usually for things like education or work. Men, or boys as young as 16, who came from one of 25 countries were required to undergo a special registration at an immigration office, where they were singled out for fingerprinting, photographs, and lengthy interrogations about their backgrounds. Of those 25 specified countries, 24 had predominantly Muslim populations. (The other was North Korea.)

From the beginning, immigration and civil rights advocates decried the program as discriminatory for disproportionately targeting Muslim Americans. In written testimony on racial profiling in America, one legal expert said of the program: “Muslims were targeted by using a convenient proxy characteristic: national origin.” The South Asian organizing group DRUM has said that “few of our leftover War On Terror domestic policies are as explicitly anti-Muslim as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System.”


Government officials denied that the program was based on racial, ethnic, or religious profiling. Kris Kobach, a Justice Department adviser who oversaw its creation, went on to become the architect of Arizona’s “papers please” law, which drew similar accusations of racial and ethnic discrimination and was partly struck down by the Supreme Court.

Under NSEERS, more than 80,000 people were forced to register and thousands were interrogated or detained, according to a report by the Rights Working Group and Penn State’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights. Those groups also found that the program had the effect of separating many families because men were returned to their countries of origin after attempting to comply. Some were returned despite not having any other relatives in those countries. In her book “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future,” Deepa Iyer of the Center for Social Inclusion recounts one community organizer's struggle to help families torn apart by the program: “We started noticing that a lot of the tenants in buildings that we were organizing would just disappear. Women would be left on their own without income sources, without even knowing where their spouses were.”

Sultana Jahangir Alam, a member of DRUM whose family was forced to leave the country after her husband was deported under the program, said in a statement: “All of us were deported for no reason, for having done nothing wrong. We were victimized through a process that criminalizes immigrants. People who came to the U.S. to find shelter found only suffering and racist targeting.”

The registration requirement was suspended in 2003 after backlash from Middle Eastern, Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities, but Homeland Security did not end the whole program until 2011. A year later, some advocacy groups complained that some elements of it were still being carried out and noted that a number of men who were kicked out of the U.S. under the program were still separated from their families.


What Trump endorsed in an exchange with an NBC News reporter would go much further than the Bush administration program and register citizen and noncitizen Muslims alike. At least one of his fellow presidential candidates, Republican Sen. Rand Paul—normally considered a defender of civil liberties—has publicly argued that the U.S. should look at “reinstating” the Bush-era program. In this political climate, other candidates may soon follow their lead.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter