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Politics & Government

Trump's Proposed Muslim Registry Echoes Bush-Era Program


During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump suggested that he might favor creating a database for Muslims who enter the United States. At other times, he has called for extreme vetting for people from terror-prone countries. The U.S. government actually once had a system that could serve as a model for this. After 9/11, the Bush administration established a registry called NSEERS. That stands for the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. We're going to talk now with someone who has studied NSEERS. Muzaffar Chishti directs the Migration Policy Institute's office at NYU School of Law. That's an independent non-partisan think tank that studies migration. Welcome to the program.

MUZAFFAR CHISHTI: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Who had to register under this program?

CHISHTI: Initially, it was confined to about five countries. It was Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran and Libya. It ultimately expanded to about 25 countries. Almost all of them were Muslim majority countries except for North Korea. So it was confined for nonimmigrants, which is noncitizens of the United States from those countries who are coming for temporary stay. If they entered at our ports of entry, they would be registered, interviewed, photographed, fingerprinted at special counters. And then they had to, within 30 days of the arrival, register at a local immigration office and then do it every year.

SHAPIRO: When you say nonimmigrant, do you mean tourists, students? What do you mean by nonimmigrants?

CHISHTI: It could be anyone who came to the U.S. on a temporary visa, you know, short-term tourist visa to long-term professor teaching at a university or someone working at a multinational corporation.

SHAPIRO: Some 80,000 people were registered under this program, is that right? All of them males, age 16 and up.

CHISHTI: That's right. The total number who came in was about 83,000.

SHAPIRO: A report from Penn State law school's Rights Working Group says 13,000 people were put into removal proceedings under this program. What were those proceedings for?

CHISHTI: So when people came in for their interview, they were then screened for their immigration issues and immigration history. If any of them had violated any provision of the law, they were placed in removal proceedings.

SHAPIRO: Was anyone removed for terrorism offenses under this program?

CHISHTI: Well, you know, the - one of the problems of the NSEERS program is that they lacked transparency, so we don't really know. The government never released any numbers or information on that account. There was a New York Times story at that time which concluded about 11 people were found to be of interest to the government but not knowing what that meant in terms of what kind of information we had on those people and what level of terrorist activity they were involved in.

SHAPIRO: So given the limited information that we have, how do you weigh the relative costs and benefits of the program?

CHISHTI: Well, I mean, there was an Office of Inspector General of the DHS which, in 2012, did an extensive report and found that this was largely ineffective, both in terms of the nature of the database, which was really not very credible, and the yields in terms of national security interest. And it cost about $10 million a year. And the inspector general's conclusion was that it would have been better to spend that money on real targets based on real information about security threats as against broadly interrogating people just on the basis of their national origin.

SHAPIRO: One of the people who helped implement this program in the Bush Justice Department, Kris Kobach, is now advising the Trump transition team on immigration issues. He was actually photographed with Trump this week holding a document that called for reintroducing the program. How do you think a 2017 version of this program might look different from what we saw during the Bush years?

CHISHTI: The issue with reinstation (ph) of this program is that how does one create a Muslim registry if that's the intent of the administration? Because we have no way of knowing, even if we want to, who is a Muslim and who's not a Muslim. The best proxies we can make are people born in certain countries of the world or, as the president-elect during the campaign pointed out, that we are looking at countries which are prone to terrorism.

And today, you will say this is ISIS' presence, but ISIS is now, in one form of the present, in a lot more countries of the world, including many countries in Europe. So how do you have a registry program which includes all those countries? One of the justification for that choice would be - could be really determined by the administration and, frankly, they would have a lot of leeway in deciding what the group is.

SHAPIRO: Muzaffar Chishti directs the Migration Policy Institute's office at NYU School of Law. Thank you for joining us.

CHISHTI: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.