Donald Trump has taken a lot of heat over the last few days for his suggestion that there should be a national database to track all Muslims in the U.S. His fellow GOP presidential contenders swiftly lashed out at the Republican front-runner, and Trump has since denied that the faith-based registry was ever his idea.
On Thursday, asked whether he supported a database to track Muslims in the U.S., Trump told NBC News, "There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases ... I would certainly implement that. Absolutely." On Friday, Trump attempted to distance himself from the comments. "I didn't suggest a database-a reporter did. We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America," he tweeted. On Saturday, Trump said "I want surveillance of these people that are coming in, the Trojan horse, I want to know who the hell they are."
The mere suggestion that it's "absolutely" necessary to register Muslims raises concerns that such a move is a slippery slope toward broadly discriminating against large swaths of people. And for a presidential candidate who has already decried foreign-born people in not-so-subtle terms, Trump's remarks set off other alarm bells. They echo the fears often circulated among immigrant communities that, placed in the wrong hands, such vast information-gathering could do serious harm.
The thing is, a database of sorts that registers undocumented immigrants already exists.
It’s called DACA -- or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals -- the very program that Republicans want to take a sledge hammer to for granting young immigrants temporary legal status and a shield from deportation. Just shy of 1 million undocumented immigrants are currently registered for the program or have unsuccessfully applied in the past. That pool of people would have been even bigger had President Obama’s executive actions on immigration been implemented as planned.
For years there has been an undercurrent of fear that plans similar to what Trump has suggested would someday be enacted. What are the upsides of coming out of the shadows when the costs could potentially be dramatic -- being torn from your family and deported to a country you no longer know? The risks seemed clear. Signing up for DACA meant handing over all personal information, which could reveal the identities of family members living in the U.S. off the books. And though DACA offered unprecedented protections for undocumented immigrants, who was to say that an anti-immigrant president wouldn't succeed Obama and use the database to immediately deport all enrollees and their families?
The same fears came up again after Obama announced his latest series of executive actions, which extended benefits to a larger pool of DREAMers -- young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children -- and the parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Older generations of undocumented immigrants were less trusting that coming out of the shadows wouldn’t backfire on them under a new administration.
It taps into a fear long-held by the immigrant community that they shouldn’t jeopardize their place in the U.S. while comprehensive immigration reform was still being hashed out. Community organizers and immigration advocates faced difficulties early on in convincing young immigrants brought to the U.S. as kids that they should come out of the shadows.
According to the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, within the first two years of the program, just over half, or 55%, of DREAMers who met the criteria actually applied. But as DACA grew in popularity, and more undocumented young people saw friends being able to apply for driver’s licenses, open bank accounts and get higher paying jobs, enrollment went up.
Though there are likely cross-sections between a database tracking immigrants for the DACA program and one monitoring Muslims, the two are very, very different. It’s against the U.S. Constitution to probe into a person’s religious beliefs, let alone compile that data into a national tracking system. And as many have already pointed out, talk of a Muslim database draws uncomfortable and unflattering comparisons to what Jews faced in Nazi Germany.
“It’s absurd. It’s racist. It caters to this media hype and has no actual basis,” said Thanu Yakupitiyage, communications manager for the New York Immigration Coalition.
Mirna Haidar, lead organizer for the advocacy group Arab American Association of New York, said she couldn’t realistically imagine a program that would monitor all Muslims in the U.S. But it's not out of the realm of possibility. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that Muslims would be tracked as potential terror threats simply because the their faith.
“If this is possible, it really means that the U.S. is not the place that it used to be,” Haidar said. “It will just make us as Arabs and Muslims more targeted. It will give them yet another weapon to use -- as if they don’t already have enough.”