EXPLAINED: Will Trump Create a Muslim Registry?

President-elect Donald Trump’s victory has worried numerous minority groups, but perhaps none more than American Muslims. In the run-up to his January inauguration, many have fretted that the United States’ new leader might try to force Muslims to register with the government for monitoring purposes. Why is that? Is it legal? What are Jews doing about it? Find out in this explainer.

What Does This Mean? Why Are People Talking About It Now?

One of the candidates candidate rumored for an appointment in Trump’s cabinet is Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State. Kobach has been a major force behind hardline policies on the undocumented and on voter identification. He has also advocated establishing a database to track visitors and immigrants from Muslim countries.

Trump himself first invoked the idea of a Muslim registry after the November 2015 attacks in Paris, which left more than 100 people dead and were carried out by Jihadist extremists. At the time, he demanded a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the country” in order to prevent terror activity. He also said that he would force American Muslims to register with the government.

He told The New York Times that he “would certainly implement that — absolutely,” in reference to the registration of American Muslims. Asked by a reporter how such a scheme would differ from Nazi Germany’s forced registration of Jews, he said, “You tell me.”

Trump faced an onslaught of criticisms for those comments, on both sides of the aisle and from his general election rival, Hillary Clinton, and soon dropped his chatter about registering American Muslims. Instead, he focused on a proposal to place extra scrutiny, or “extreme vetting, on visitors and immigrants from Middle Eastern countries before their entry into the United States. The current registry idea would focus on this population, but has nevertheless set American Muslims on edge.

Does This Have Any Precedents? Is It Legal?

Kobach helped put together a similar registry after 9/11, when he worked at the Justice Department during the Bush administration. Called the Secure Entry-Exit Registration System, it subjected visitors and immigrants from a number of countries — all of them Muslim-majority, except North Korea — to regular check-ins with the federal government. The program came under fierce attack, and the Obama administration discontinued it in 2011.

On Thursday, a prominent Trump supporter, Carl Higbie defended the idea of re-establishing such a program while mentioning that the Supreme Court had approved the internship of Japanese Americans in World War II. It is an act the United States apologized for in 1988 under President Ronald Reagan, who also signed legislation providing reparations to victims and their families.

“We’ve done it based on race, we’ve done it based on religion, we’ve done it based on region,” Higbie said. “We’ve done it with Iran back — back a while ago. We did it during World War II with Japanese.” That drew condemnations from across the political spectrum.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller said after the episode that Trump would not implement a registry system targeted explicitly at Muslim visitors and immigrants, but did hint that the administration could de facto target Muslims in the same way that Bush did.

Constitutional experts have for the most part split the difference on the question of whether a Muslim ban would be constitutional. A registry for American Muslims would almost certainly violate the Constitution. But the Constitution grants the executive branch wide discretion over immigration policy, and the Bill of Rights does not apply in full to foreign nationals. So most think that the president-elect would be within his authority to reestablish something on a par with the Secure Entry-Exit Registration System.

What Are Jews Doing About This?

Because of Jewish history — specifically the forced registration of Jews in Nazi Germany — much of the community has reacted with shock to this news.

Many, including Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League and Forward contributor Benjamin Gladstone, have said that Jews should register as Muslims if a registry for American Muslims comes to pass. (Once again, Trump’s advisers have denied this is on the table.)

In an op-ed for the Forward, Mira Sucharov said that Jews should wear yarmulkes in public as an expression of solidarity. Progressive Jewish organizations like Bend the Arc have circulated petitions calling for support for the beleaguered Muslim community, while the American Jewish Committee has started a joint advisory panel on bigotry with the Islamic Society of North America.

Contact Daniel J. Solomon at solomon@forward.com or on Twitter @DanielJSolomon


Daniel J. Solomon

Daniel J. Solomon is the Assistant to the Editor/News Writer at the Forward. Originally from Queens, he attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he wrote his senior thesis on French-Jewish intellectual history. He is excited to have returned to New York after his time in Massachusetts. Daniel’s passions include folk music, cycling, and pointed argument.

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