A prominent supporter of Donald Trump set off concern and condemnation on behalf of Muslims on Wednesday after citing World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant registry suggested by a member of the president-elect’s transition team.
The supporter, Carl Higbie, a former spokesman for Great America PAC, an independent fundraising committee, made the comments in an appearance on “The Kelly File” on Fox News.
He was referring to a suggestion by Kris Kobach, a member of Trump’s transition team, that the new administration could reinstate a national registry for immigrants from countries where terrorist groups were active.
“We’ve done it based on race, we’ve done it based on religion, we’ve done it based on region,” Higbie said. “We’ve done it with Iran back — back a while ago. We did it during World War II with Japanese.”
“You’re not proposing that we go back to the days of internment camps, I hope,” said Megyn Kelly, the show’s host.
He stood by his comments in a phone interview Thursday morning, saying that he had been alluding to the fact that the Supreme Court had “upheld things as horrific as Japanese internment camps.”
“There is historical, factual precedent to do things that are not politically popular and sometimes not right, in the interest of national security,” he said, adding that he “fundamentally” disagreed with “the internment camp mantra and doing it at all.”
He clarified that he was not a constitutional lawyer and was working from a layman’s understanding of the 1944 Supreme Court ruling that the order for internment camps was constitutional. He said he hopes to be involved in the Trump administration, but has had no “formal conversations” with the president-elect’s team.
On Thursday, a spokeswoman for Trump did not reply to a request for comment.
That night, a CNN reporter wrote on Twitter that Jason Miller, a spokesman for the Trump transition team, had issued the following statement: “President-elect Trump has never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion, and to imply otherwise is completely false.
The national registry of foreign visitors from countries with high terrorism activity that was in place during the Bush and Obama administrations gave intelligence and law enforcement communities additional tools to keep our country safe, but the President-elect plans on releasing his own vetting policies after he is sworn in.”
A spokeswoman for Kobach declined to comment.
A spokesman for the Great America PAC said Higbie had stopped working for the fundraising group on the day after the election.
Higbie’s comments were met with furious criticism by civil rights activists, Muslim organizations and politicians.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., a Japanese-American whose parents and grandparents were imprisoned during World War II, said in a statement Thursday that the comments reflected “an alarming resurgence of racism and xenophobia in our political discourse.” He called on Trump to denounce them.
Robert S. McCaw, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, called the reference to internment camps as a precedent “absolutely deplorable” and said that it would “would return America to one of the darkest chapters of its history.”
McCaw noted that Congress had formally apologized for the Japanese-American internment in a law signed by President Ronald Reagan.
“I can’t see how it would now be right to do the same thing to Muslims,” McCaw said.
Kobach, who is Kansas’ secretary of state, was referring to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which he helped create while working at the Department of Justice. The program was first proposed in 2002 and significant portions of it suspended nine years later in 2011.
Kobach, who has degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, had helped to create and implement the system when he worked for Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The policy came under heavy criticism while it was in effect and afterward. In a 2012 report, the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at the Pennsylvania State University’s law school called it a “tool that allowed the government to systematically target Arabs, Middle Easterners, Muslims, and South Asians” and a “clear example of discriminatory and arbitrary racial profiling.”
“Within its first year of operation, the registration system resulted in the apprehension of numerous suspected terrorists,” according to his Kansas government biography.
That program was not as broad or sweeping as the database of Muslim residents that Trump had said he would “certainly implement” during the Republican primaries. He later backed off the idea after criticism.