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End the scourge of profiling Arabs and Muslims

May 01,2023 - Last updated at May 01,2023

Twenty years ago this month, as the disastrous Iraq war began, Arabs and Muslims in the US were also reeling from George W. Bush’s assault on their civil liberties.

While the Bush administration was not the first or last to implement policies violating the rights of Arab and Muslim immigrants, its behaviour was the most egregious.

In the wake of 9/11’s horrific terrorist attacks, there was deep concern that some Americans would lash out against Arabs and Muslims in the US, and while President Bush spoke out against targeting Arabs and Muslims and blaming them for the crimes of 9/11, his administration was implementing policies that did exactly the opposite.

First came the immediate roundup of thousands of recent Arab and Muslim immigrants, many of whom were summarily deported. Two national “call-ins” followed, in which more than 8,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants (and some citizens) were ordered to report for “interviews” with immigration officials.

Then, the Bush administration launched the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a massive profiling programme requiring all nonimmigrant males (students, visitors, businesspeople) 16 and over from 25 Arab and Muslim-majority countries (and North Korea) to report to immigration offices around the US to be photographed, fingerprinted and interrogated.

By every measure, NSEERS was a disaster—poorly conceived, badly managed and arbitrarily executed. The result was chaos, fear and wrecked lives. Local immigration offices lacked the resources to handle the intake. Impacted communities weren’t given the information needed to know when they should report. Immigration officials lacked specific guidelines for administering the registration.

Hundreds reported at the Los Angeles office for the first deadline and were detained en masse because the office lacked the manpower for interviews; other immigrants recoiled in fear. Compounding the fear were stories of men being ordered for deportation despite having their papers in order. As a result, many went into hiding while thousands of others fled the country.

In the end, of the estimated 160,000 to 180,000 immigrants who were to have reported, only 83,000 did, with almost 14,000 placed in deportation proceedings. Because the Bush administration rebuffed all information requests, all we know are stories from victims, their families or attorneys. My office handled hundreds of anguished calls, and was unable to find remedies because the Bush administration was so unresponsive. Their trauma became a shared experience. And 20 years later, we still feel it.

If NSEERS’s purpose was to create distrust between Arabs and Muslims and the US government or to generate fear and insecurity, then it was a success. But as “an essential tool in making the US more secure” as the Bush Administration claimed, it was a total failure. The Office of the Inspector General reported in 2012 that US officials found “little value in the interviews they conducted with NSEERS registrants” and that the programme provided “no discernable public benefit”. NSEERS did not produce a single known terrorism-related conviction.

NSEER’s failure was being based on the crudest of methods, mass profiling based on country of origin. Not the first such effort, such mass profiling was used by Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Trump. All were flawed, wasting law enforcement resources and eroding trust with affected communities. None have resulted in making America safer.

Toward the end of the Bush years, even senior administration officials were promising to terminate the programmeme. They did not. The Obama administration suspended the programmeme in 2011, removing the 25 countries subjected to the special registration requirements but did not officially terminate NSEERS until December 2016, just before Donald Trump, with his threat of a Muslim Ban, took office. Though President Obama removed NSEERS’ regulatory framework, data about NSEERS registrants remain in various government databases. As a result, local and federal law enforcement can tap into a national database of Arab and Muslim visitors and use it to harass, intimidate, and surveil them.

Twenty years after Bush’s assault on civil liberties, it’s time for the Biden administration to bury NSEERS once and for all, by finally banning profiling in all its forms. Until then, the crude profiling of Arabs and Muslims, including Arab Americans and American Muslims, will continue. Discriminatory programmemes like NSEERS have not made us safer. They have only made us less free.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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