The first thing to know about Donald Trump’s alleged proposal for a Muslim registry is that it isn’t a Muslim registry.
This has been lost in a freak-out that has some brave souls already promising acts of civil disobedience to disrupt and overwhelm the prospective registry. The controversy tells us much more about how the media will cover the Trump administration — i.e., through the lens of a fact-free hysteria — than about the administration’s immigration-enforcement agenda.
The source of the fracas is a comment from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Trump immigration adviser and (excellent) candidate for Homeland Secretary director, to Reuters. Kobach noted that the administration might reinstate a Bush-era program tracking visitors to the U.S. from countries with active terrorist threats. This suggestion was spun into a first step toward herding our Muslim neighbors into internment camps.
Kobach was referring to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, which placed special requirements on adult male visitors from countries like Saudi Arabia. Implemented after Sept. 11 — when, you might recall, adult male visitors from Saudi Arabia toppled the World Trade Center — it collected fingerprints and photographs when visitors from the select countries arrived and required them to check in periodically to confirm that they were abiding by the terms of their visas.
It also required that certain individuals from these countries who were already here go through a process of “special registration,” including an interview with immigration officials.
This is a far cry from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s notorious Executive Order 9066 setting in motion the Japanese internment of World War II.
It is true, as the critics point out, that the selected countries all were, with the exception of North Korea, majority Muslim. But any program concerned with international terrorism will, inevitably, focus largely on Muslim countries (although European countries like France and Belgium have developed an indigenous terror threat). The 9/11 hijackers, notably, all came from majority Muslim countries.
It is said that the Bush program didn’t lead to the prosecution of any terrorists. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “The New York Times reported in 2003 that, out of roughly 85,000 individuals registered through the NSEERS program in 2002 and 2003, just 11 were found to have ties to terrorism.”
Although tracking down anyone here who has ties to terrorism isn’t necessarily something to sniff at, the Bush program proved best-suited to identifying visa overstayers. Of the 85,000 initial registrants, nearly 14,000 were put into removal proceedings. For the critics, this is an indictment. Liberal website Vox complains that the program “made it easier to deport someone who then overstayed his visa than it would have been to deport him if he’d refused to register at all.”
But why shouldn’t it be easier to deport visa-overstayers, who constitute about half of the population of illegal immigrants? If we are serious about our immigration rules, our approach to visa-overstayers from all countries should be much more restrictive and hardheaded.
The requirements of the Bush program were watered down over time until it was suspended by the Obama administration in 2011. But the program wasn’t illegal or unconstitutional (the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in its favor). Nor was it immoral — foreign visitors should be subject to any reasonable strictures we impose in exchange for the privilege of coming here.
That the so-called Muslim registry is now a thing, a subject of high dudgeon and hot debate, is testament to how the same media that complains about “fake news” is committed to manufacturing and driving its own narratives only loosely connected to reality. Whether the Trump administration revives a version of the Bush program or not, a similar campaign of obloquy will be directed at all of its immigration enforcement measures. It will have to pursue its agenda against a backdrop of media hostility and constant misinformation.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.