Opponents Organize to Block Expected Trump Muslim Registry and Jeff Sessions' Attorney General Nomination

Posted Nov. 23, 2016

MP3 Interview with Drew Courtney, communications director with People for the American Way, conducted by Scott Harris


Throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign, GOP candidate Donald Trump, now president-elect, trafficked in racism, hate speech, and scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities. The many days of anti-Trump protests in U.S. cities and towns after he won the state-by-state Electoral College vote, while failing to win the popular vote, were inspired in part by Trump’s campaign promises to deport 11 million undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. and build a wall the length of the U.S. southern border. The real estate billionaire also pledged to ban the immigration of Muslims into the U.S., and institute a national registry for Muslims already living in America.

Concern about the new Trump administration’s intention to move forward on establishing a Muslim registry was fueled by statements made by Carl Higbie, a former spokesman for a major super PAC backing Donald Trump. Higbie, speaking on a Fox News program said that the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “precedent” for the president-elect’s plans to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.

People for the American Way is one of a large number of groups opposed to the Trump agenda that are gearing up for important political battles ahead, many relating directly to a feared erosion of human and civil rights in the U.S. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Drew Courtney, communications director with People for the American Way, who explains why he believes a Muslim registry is unconstitutional and the reasons his group has come out in opposition to Trump’s nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to become the next attorney general.

DREW COURTNEY: One of the things that we're reconciling ourselves to in the Trump administration is that it's sometimes very hard to know exactly what's going on because of course, Donald Trump will say one and then say something else and then deny he said the first thing. Although, unfortunately, given the appointments that we've seen and that the moves towards policies we've seen so far – some of the worst things that he's proposed need to be taken very, very seriously. So we've heard since he was elected from various advisers – folks on the transition committee, folks like Reince Priebus, who have a role in the White House – that there is consideration of some kind of Muslim registration. He was saying that they're not ruling out something like Muslim registry. And we know that on Sunday, Kris Kobach, who right now is the secretary of state of Kansas, but who has been a longtime anti-immigrant and anti-voting rights activist – who in recent years has also become a vocal anti-Muslim activist – was in with Donald Trump and was proposing to him to resurrect and expand a program that existed under President Bush that would have required Muslim immigrants from certain countries to register.

Fundamentally, what it comes down to is, any attempt to create a registration of Muslims is profoundly unconstitutional and you can dress it up by saying, "Oh, well, we're actually only asking people from certain countries, 'wink, wink' to register with the government." That fig leaf shouldn't fly. It's still profoundly offensive and it's also really dangerous. But we do know that's being considered. I think that this is something that we should really worry about. You know, if there's one that's essential to the Constitution, to the First Amendment, to the Fourteenth Amendment, it's the idea that all people are equally welcomed in our civic life. There is no exception for Muslims, there is no exception for Jews, nor for Christians, nor for atheists, and this would run deeply afoul of that principle.

And the other thing to remember is that these kind of registries do nothing to keep us safe. They actually make it much more dangerous for all of us for several reasons. You know, it buys into this very dangerous lie that's being propagated by the Islamic State, by al Qaeda, that the United States is at war with Islam, is at war with Muslims. It's a powerful recruiting tool for them. It also attacks communities who we need to help us finding extremism. You know, there are people who are radicalized within the Muslim community, and what we see is that the people who alert us to this, so that problem can be addressed, are other Muslims.

And the third thing is that it blinds us to radicalization that goes on in other communities. We've had some very dangerous terrorist attacks in the United States. Many of them have been committed by people who are not Muslim. When someone shoots up a black church in South Carolina, that was not committed by a Muslim. When someone blows up the federal building in Oklahoma City, that was not committed by a Muslim. And shame on us, if we decide that we're going to look so hard at Muslims who are radicalized that we ignore other folks in our communities who could also become radicalized with really deadly results.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Drew, I'm sure you and your colleagues at People for American Way and other allied groups are talking about mounting effective opposition to a prospective Muslim registry in the United States harkening back to the internment of the Japanese. What are some of the strategies and tactics you're talking about to effectively oppose this possible policy change in the country?

DREW COURTNEY: So I think some of things that we need to be seeing right now at the policy level before we're moving on to it, is that there is a lot of activist energy on the streets, on Facebook. I've been working at People for the American Way for over a decade; I've never seen anything like the energy and enthusiasm that's come out in response to this pushing back. I think a signal needs to be sent loud and clear that we are watching and we are watching very closely on these kinds of things. So the first place that I think it really is important that we push back is around the nomination of Jeff Sessions. He has a truly abominable record around civil rights. He has an abominable record around Muslim Americans and has spoken repeatedly and kindly to groups that are not just anti-immigrant, but specifically anti-Muslim, and it's really important that we fight very hard on that nomination. And that, frankly, if senators are going to make the choice to rubberstamp someone as extreme and dangerous as Jeff Sessions, they pay a price for it. And they need to know that this is going to be a real fight.

The second thing is that we need to oppose very stringently the first moves that we see on these things. So when we see this starting to come out; if these things get floated; if we see Kris Kobach moving in, we don't wait and see on some of this stuff. We speak up for our values immediately. The thing that I think we need to remember is not only do we have to oppose it then – when times could be tough – but we need to fight every single way, in the less dramatic, the less glamorous ways to make sure that we never ever get to that point.

For more information, visit People for the American Way at PFAW.org.

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