Posted by Anastasia Horn on October 03, 2018 in Blog

On September 20, 2018, the George Washington University Law School convened “The Scapegoating of Minorities as National Security Policy” panel as part of the NATSECDEF conference. Laila al-Arian of Al Jazeera led a discussion between Deepa Iyer, author of We Too Sing America, and former Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), Hina Shamsi of the ACLU, and Dr. Maha Hilal of the Justice for Muslims Collective about xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment built in to our national security policy.

Each speaker noted that current government polices targeting Arab American, American Muslim, and South Asian American communities, like the Muslim Ban, are rooted in post-9/11 national security policy. Ms. Iyer stressed that the National Security Exit Entry Registration System (NSEERS), a program that required men over the age of sixteen from Arab or Muslim-majority countries to register and periodically check in with immigration authorities, formed the basis of the Trump Administration’s current ban. NSEERS was established to identify terrorists attempting to enter or already living in the United States. Instead, NSEERS netted zero terrorist convictions and damaged the civil rights of affected communities. Supporters of the current travel ban point to NSEERS as an example of past immigration restrictions based on country of origin. Although NSEERS was suspended in 2011, it was never found unconstitutional. This, in addition to the Supreme Court's erroneous decision in Trump v. Hawaii, allows the current administration to continue discriminating based on religion or national origin.

Ms. Shamsi added that the Bush and Obama Administrations’ refusal to investigate and hold government officials accountable for torturing detainees sent a message to America that discriminating against certain communities is “generally OK.” The fact that the U.S. government will not acknowledge that it broke international law against torture disregards the victims’ suffering. Between NSEERS and the torture program, it is clear that the country’s post-9/11 discriminatory national security policy is based off of xenophobic suspicions. Furthermore, these policies have successfully “othered” targeted communities; making Arab Americans, American Muslims, and South Asian Americans feel like second-class citizens in their own country. Ms. Shamsi continued by stating that the legal infrastructure has not changed between the Obama and Trump Administrations. President Obama instituted new norms, like ending torture and suspending NSEERS, but President Trump cast those norms aside and instituted new policies targeting Muslim and Arab communities. In other words, President Trump’s election led to an increase in xenophobic, discriminatory policies, but the tools to create these policies existed before the 2016 election.

All three panelists noted that these measures stirred organizing and activism among targeted communities. While this is an excellent first step to ending xenophobic and discriminatory national security policies, more actions are necessary. Ms. Iyer believes that activist groups in the community must transition from reacting to policies to long-term strategizing, which could prevent discriminatory programs from being enacted in the first place. Additionally, the panelists noted that issues affecting these communities are seen as national security issues instead of civil rights issues, which limits potential allies and issue linkage.  Convincing others to see these problems as civil rights violations brings them out of the shadows of national security secrecy and makes people more likely to pressure officials for change. Dr. Hilal noted that increasing voter participation and education in targeted communities is crucial, as electing representatives to rewrite laws is the most effective way to change discriminatory national security policies. Unfortunately, fear-based national security policy is not unique to the current administration, but by encouraging members of targeted communities to vote and call attention to civil rights violations, change might finally come. 


Anastasia Horn is a 2018 Fall Intern at the Arab American Institute.

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