Democrats won’t have a lot of power in Washington for at least the next few years, but they will still have to do everything they possibly can to defend minority groups from Donald Trump’s worst excesses — from stepped-up mass deportations to an assault on voting rights to a database that has been widely described as a “Muslim registry.”
Here’s an early look at what that resistance might look like in practice.
Democratic senators are set to introduce a new bill that would block the executive branch from establishing a registry that is based on religion, national origin, nationality, or other classifications, I’m told. While it’s hard to imagine Republicans supporting such a measure, meaning its prospects are pretty bleak, this is the sort of thing Democrats will start doing as the opposition in the Trump Era — roll out concrete proposals that highlight their differences with Trump in stark relief.
“Our legislation would block Donald Trump and subsequent administrations from infringing on religious liberty by creating an immigration-related religious registry,” said Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, the lead sponsor on the bill. “Forcing people to sign up for a registry based on their religion, race, or national origin does nothing to keep America secure.” Other co-sponsors include senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, Patty Murray, Ed Markey, Brian Schatz, and Mazie Hirono.
The goal of this proposal is to thwart in advance Trump’s vague plan for a database that would apparently store the names of people from countries with a history of terrorism. After the terror attack in Berlin last month, Trump was asked directly whether he intended to proceed with a Muslim registry, and he answered: “You know my plans.”
Though Trump did explicitly propose a Muslim registry during the campaign, the current iteration of it isn’t really a Muslim registry. It’s more like a tool that would help Trump fulfill his pledge to carry out “extreme vetting” of people who visit from select countries. One Trump adviser, immigration hardliner Kris Kobach, recently said that Trump might try to reinstate a national registry that collects the names of people who come to the U.S. on visas from countries with active terrorist groups.
That database is known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System — or Nseers — and it was created after 9/11, ultimately requiring the registration of certain visitors from 25 countries, most with majority Muslim populations. But as the New York Times reported, it hasn’t been in use since 2011, because it came to be seen as redundant, and the Obama administration recently disbanded it, to make it harder for Trump to revive it, though he seemingly could do so anyway. A Trump spokesman recently downplayed the idea that Trump would do that, promising new “vetting policies.”
Trump appears prepared to do something to facilitate the “extreme vetting” he promised, and a revived database of some kind appears possible. The vague nature of Trump’s intentions is why the new Democratic proposal to thwart it is drawn so broadly. The bill’s text says it would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security or any other executive department from implementing a program that would require people to register “on the basis of religion, race, age, gender, ethnicity, national origin, nationality, or citizenship.”
The use of the words “religion,” “national origin,” and “nationality” would presumably block a revival of any sort of Nseers-type program Trump might envision. “The bill would prevent president-elect Trump from implementing a program that would discriminate against people by country of origin or nationality,” says Greg Chen, the director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which consulted with the senators on the bill’s creation.
Obviously, with Democrats in the minority, getting such proposals considered will mostly be a virtual impossibility — and of course President Trump would never sign such a thing. But this is an effort to try to get Republicans to take a position on something you’d think a few might consider supporting. Republicans such as Paul Ryan condemned Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and proposals during the campaign. Now that Trump is president, it remains to be seen whether Republicans will be willing to speak out against proposals that appear targeted towards Muslims, even if they are ostensibly not structured that way.
“While I know that this effort faces difficult prospects in a Republican-dominated Congress, this is an issue of fundamental American values, freedom of religion, and nondiscrimination,” Senator Booker says. “It’s important that we make a stand.”
The broader story here is that as the opposition, Democrats are going to have to find whatever way they can to resist Trump’s proposals, which — if he does what he promised he would do — will amount to assaults on various minority groups. Civil liberties groups such as the ACLU — which also consulted on this new proposal — are vowing court challenges to everything from stepped-up deportations to further restrictions on voting rights to databases designed to facilitate “extreme vetting.”
Congressional Democrats will have to roll out concrete proposals wherever possible which, while doomed, will at least stand as alternatives. One big question is whether they’ll find allies among constitutional conservatives and libertarians who are horrified by Trumpism’s threatened excesses — and one way to test that will be with proposals such as this one.