Friday, November 20, 2015
Somehow, I feel like the debates over immigration regularly feel as if, to quote the late Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again all over again. Donald Trump has returned to the headlines with the proposal that, in the name of protecting national security, the government create a national database that includes all Muslims, citizens and noncitizens alike, in the United States. (After attacked for the proposal, he later retreated a bit from it.). I am not sure how such a database would come in handy. Would we question all Muslims in the event of a terrorist act? As the famous movie Casablanca ended, we could “round up the usual suspects.” Besides its patent unconstitutionality, such a dragnet does not sound like it would be particularly effective from a law enforcement and national security standpoint.
Unfortunately, this kind of extreme measure directed at a discrete and insular minority would not be unprecedented in American history. Most recently, as part of the “war on terror,” the U.S government in the wake of September 11, 2001 invoked its plenary power over immigration and created the “special registration” program, requiring noncitizens from certain countries, mostly the Middle East and other predominantly Muslim nations. Well before that program, the U.S. government had subjected Muslim noncitizens to surveillance and related activities.
The truth of the matter is that racial discrimination historically has not had boundaries based on the technicalities of immigration status. During World War II, the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States upheld the internment of persons of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens as well as immigrants. During an earlier national economic calamity known as the Great Depression, state and local governments, with federal assistance and encouragement, sought to reduce the welfare rolls by “repatriating,” voluntarily and otherwise, persons of Mexican ancestry, including U.S. citizens and immigrants. During the Cold War, President Eisenhower directed “Operation Wetback,” the equivalent of a military operation to remove persons of Mexican ancestry, including U.S. citizens as well as immigrants. Although thoroughly discredited as an infamous widespread civil rights violation, Donald Trump has called for an encore.
Obviously, the unconstitutionality of a national Muslim database is crystal clear. Nor is there any need to, as a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would do, adopt special refugee admissions procedures in an effort to effectively eliminate the admission of refugees from Syria and Iraq. The current security checks for refugee admissions are rigorous and thorough. The State Department can be expected to thoroughly vet any potential terrorists in these times.
It is time for the nation to take a collective deep breath. The tragic events in Paris were just that – tragic. We should take necessary measures but not overreact. Many observers look back on the excesses of the measures taken after September 11, including mass arrests and detentions, racial and religious profiling, and much more. We should learn from our history and not repeat its worst moments.