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Debate continues whether Trump's response to terrorism '100% correct'

FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, file photo, President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

As the suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack was identified as a Tunisian asylum-seeker, slated for deportation, President-elect Donald Trump doubled down on his campaign promise to greatly restrict the number of Muslims coming the United States.

Asked by reporters outside his Mar-a-Lago resort on Wednesday whether the attack had caused him to rethink his controversial proposal to create a Muslim registry or ban Muslims from coming to the country, Trump stated, "Hey, you've known my plans all along." He continued that his approach to terrorism has "been proven to be right. 100 percent correct. What’s happening is disgraceful.”

In the immediate aftermath of the truck attack in Berlin, before law enforcement had released its assessment, Trump characterized the incident as among a series of "terror attacks" and issued a statement condemning "ISIS and other Islamist terrorists" who "continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad."

Some members of the American-Muslim community are bracing themselves for President Trump, who has vowed to amp up surveillance at mosques, and whose National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, once tweeted that "fear of Muslims is rational." But as Trump opponents express outrage over the policies the incoming president has vowed to implement, others cite those policies as the very reason Trump was elected in the first place.

"Immigration was his main appeal initially, it's what got him the presidency," immigration and homeland security expert Heather MacDonald said of Trump. "He will have very strong support for tightening up our terrorism screening and tightening up our immigration enforcement generally, and he has got a clear mandate for that."

That appears to be the message Trump sent to reporters when he said the public has known his plans all along. Trump first made his policy clear at the end of 2015, when his campaign published a statement calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

In August, Trump elaborated this plan, saying that immigration is "the common thread" linking all the major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and in Europe. He then promised to temporarily suspend immigration from "the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism."

"As soon as I take office, I will ask the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to identify a list of regions where adequate screening cannot take place. We will stop processing visas from those areas until such time as it is deemed safe to resume based on new circumstances or new procedures," Trump said. Among those new procedures, he proposed screening out those visitors who have ideologies that are hostile to American values.

The plan is not without precedent in the United States. Trump himself cited the Cold War ideological test administered by the State Department throughout the 1960's to prevent fascists and communists from entering the country and subverting it from within. And during the dark days of World War II, the United States cut off immigration from Japan (and interned Japanese living in the U.S.), and turned away hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany, driven largely out of the fear that America's enemies had penetrated these migrant flows.

Aside from the historical precedents and the moral complexities arising from the policies, both supporters and opponents of Trump's proposed Muslim ban agree that it would be nearly impossible to enforce.

"You cant impose a Muslim ban. This is not going happen," said Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). "It is a very problematic approach to say you're going to ban a full religion from entering the country," he said adding that the policy that looks like America excluding Muslims on religious or ethnic grounds, "will really play into the hands of the terrorists."

The current administration has vocally criticized the proposed ban on Muslims, with DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson asserting that it would be "counterproductive" to implement such a policy. "Overly simplistic suggestions that we ban people from entering this country based on religion, or ban people from an entire region of the world, is counterproductive," Johnson said during an interview earlier this year.

David Yerushalmi, the co-founder of the conservative American Freedom Law Center, and special counsel to the Center for Security Policy, does not question the need to improve vetting and stem the flow of dangerous individuals from Muslim-majority countries, but doubts whether it can practically be accomplished.

"It would be rational to put a curb on people who immigrate from those places, period," Yerushalmi said, "to connect jihadists with Islam is also simply rational." But he noted that it is "not possible in any simple way, or even any complex way" to implement that kind of immigration system "that can separate out the jihadist Muslims from the permanently non-jihadist Muslims."

Trump has pondered this kind of separation in his argument for "extreme vetting," the notion of conducting an extensive background check, including an ideological "screening test" to ensure "the right people" get into the country. And until those procedures are put in place, Trump said, there would have to be a temporary suspension of immigration from dangerous or terror-prone countries.

Yerushalmi argued that the government simply doesn't have the capacity to implement the type of extreme vetting Trump proposed. "It's not possible in any simple way, or even any complex way to do that yet. The sheer numbers and the resources it would take to vet is economically and resource impossible."

In addition to the immigration ban, Trump also indicated that a Muslim registry was an appropriate response to the terror threat, in the aftermath of the Berlin attack.

Early on in the presidential campaign, Trump proposed beefing up surveillance on the American-Muslim community. During a November 2015 interview, Trump was asked if there should be a database system that tracks Muslims in America. Trump responded, "There should be a lot of systems, beyond database," saying that his White House "would certainly implement that."

He later corrected his comments via Twitter, saying that he did not personally suggest a database, but believes "surveillance" and "a watch list" are critical national security safeguards.

Strengthening Muslim surveillance, including paying closer attention to mosques, is something that long-time Trump supporter and informal advisor, Rudy Giuliani put into effect in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when he was Mayor of New York City. The New York Police Department's (NYPD) intelligence and surveillance unit, dedicated to monitoring mosques in the New York and New Jersey area for radicalization, met with mixed results. Under the program, law enforcement mapped out Muslim communities, increased video surveillance, and informants were embedded within the communities to monitor suspicious behavior. Legal advocates argued the program was unconstitutional, as it allegedly targeted individuals solely on the basis of religious affiliation. The program was ultimately suspended in 2015.

Yerushalmi argued that the NYPD program was both legal and constitutional, and something Trump could potentially resurrect. "What we know from studies that have been done, is mosques are key recruitment centers and support centers," Yerushalmi claimed. Trump could target mosques and Muslim-American communities, "based on evidence criminal behavior, or incitement of criminal behavior," he added. "We're not targeting them based upon their religion simply. We are saying the mosques, as a physical environment, are a place jihadists go to recruit and gain material support."

The idea of Trump using the NYPD surveillance program as a policy precedent is a worrisome prospect for Ayoub and other activists. "Surveillance on the community is something we deal with every day, even under Obama," Ayoub stated, adding that privacy and government surveillance are issues that directly affect all Americans, not just the Islamic community.

The concern, however, is that Trump would use the NYPD model to collect identifying information on individuals and then input that information into a database, Ayoub said. "He could use it as a tool to develop the registry, and use it in ways that--we don't know. We don't know how he's going to use it or what the intentions are."

Only weeks before Trump is sworn into office, the Obama administration announced that it was dismantling a Department of Homeland Security program that some activists believe could have been instrumental in the creation of a Muslim registry. On Thursday, DHS announced the end of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a registration program for non-immigrant visitors coming to the United States from about two dozen primarily Muslim-majority countries. DHS stopped using the program in 2011, but just dismantled the structure of NSEERS this week, saying the program was "redundant" and "no longer provided any increase in security."

A coalition of more than 100 American-Muslim groups, religious organizations, and civil liberties activists had been pressing Obama to repeal the NSEERS structure before Trump came into office, arguing the 9/11 legacy program was "discriminatory and dangerous" and could be abused to target individuals coming to the U.S. on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and national origin.

Yet even without the DHS program, there are still plenty of steps the Trump administration can take and has indicated it will take, to curb migration flows from Muslim countries and defeat "radical Islamic terrorism." From banning immigrants and visa holders of certain nationalities or religions, to an ideological test, to profiling and surveilling particular groups of people, opponents of Trump may disapprove of the policies, but they are not without precedent in the country's history.


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