It goes without saying that I am not a big War on Terror / Fuck Our Rights Because I'm Scared of the Brown People guy. So it's somewhat surprising to find myself with mixed feelings bordering on ambivalence at the revelation that the recently concluded "Special Registration" program in Homeland Security netted 11 individuals with al-Qaeda ties out of 85,000 Muslim registrants.
Part of me understands that I am expected to decry the program as racial profiling (see the Wiki for a list of foreign nationals who were required to participate). Another part of me is supposed to mock the program's amusingly low success rate (0.01%) as an indicator of its futility. Yet despite what the right likes to use as a straw man of Libruls, I understand a number of key aspects of the complicated question of rights, the law, and non-citizen residents in the U.S.
1. Finding 11 individuals – let's assume, perhaps tenuously, that "ties to al-Qaeda" is defined in a reasonably accurate, meaningful way – is neither surprising nor insignificant. We would expect and anticipate that 99.99% (literally, in this case) of entrants from these 25 countries will have no links to any kind of terrorist activity. It only takes a very small number of individuals to execute a potentially serious terrorist plot.
2. Terrorism is a real threat and DHS has a legitimate mandate to prevent it, within the limits set by the law.
3. There is a reasonable suspicion that entrants from the countries identified are more likely – again, 0.01% vs. 0.0001% – to have terrorist ties.
4. Non-citizens can legally be subjected to reasonable requirements like registering their presence in the country. The NYT reports that the program identified "more than 10,000" individuals who were not in the country legally – either visa overstays or undocumented entrants. I have no problem with the government enforcing existing laws requiring people to have valid visas to reside here. It shocks me that anyone would.
5. Non-citizens are not treated equally in terms of the requirements placed upon them. We can argue the right or wrong of this, but that is a separate argument. The legal reality is that neither the U.S. nor any other nation on Earth treats all non-citizens and entrants identically irrespective of country of origin. This does not imply that the U.S. can do anything it chooses to immigrants or entrants, but only that it is not legally required to subject everyone to the exact same standards in issuing visas or requiring registration.
6. Any sovereign country has a vested interest in keeping accurate records of who is coming in and out of the country.
7. We do a shit job of #6, and it's not productive to have a hissy fit every time the federal government tries to place additional requirements (you know, like not overstaying visas by 15 years) on non-citizen residents or visitors. They have rights. But the government also has legitimate interests.
There. I guess I'm a closet neocon after all.