The Los Angeles City Council is set to vote Tuesday over whether to move forward with a federally funded surveillance program targeting Muslim Americans that immigrant rights advocates say poses a major threat to civil liberties.
Los Angeles is one of three pilot cities—together with Boston and Minneapolis—set to receive $425,000 in grant money from the federal Countering Violent Extremism program, launched under the Obama administration to target a broad array of violent extremist groups. But the Trump administration appears to be using the CVE program as a pretext to surveil Muslim-American communities exclusively, advocates say. For immigrants' rights advocates the news is particularly unsettling after the Supreme Court's surprise decision on President Donald Trump's travel ban targeting those from Muslim-majority countries.
In February of 2017, the administration reportedly attempted to stop the program from addressing what analysts warn is the emergence of rampant radical, violent white supremacy and focus its work on penetrating Muslim-American community organizations—going as far as to try to change the program's name to "Countering Islamic Extremism" or "Countering Radical Islamic Extremism," Reuters reported, citing several sources briefed on the policy shift. In June of 2017, the Department of Homeland Security withdrew funding from Life After Hate, a group that enables people to leave hate—primarily white supremacist—groups, according to the organization.
CVE "was extremely problematic under the Obama administration," says Marwa Rifahie, a civil rights attorney with the Council on American Islamic Relations' Los Angeles office. "The difference is that, under the Obama administration, it also targeted white extremists and white supremacy."
Human rights organizations made California Public Records Act requests about the CVE program in both February and July of 2017. The information that the municipal government yielded was delayed and incomplete, and a group of civil liberties organizations including the Los Angeles branches of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the of the Council on American Islamic Relations filed suit against the city, seeking further information on how it intends to use the funds and what strings are attached.
"We've made it very clear we don't like CVE. It's a bad policy," says Laboni Hoq, AAAJ–L.A.'s litigation director. "Experts say this isn't an effective way to engage in counterterrorism. There is no study showing that it helps to identify people on the path to radicalization or who are likely to commit violent acts. We definitely oppose it, but we want to look at documents and see how this is effecting communities."
The CVE program penetrates groups—many of which offer much-needed public services—to collect data on Muslim Americans going about their lives to ascertain whether they are being radicalized—without any transparency or accountability over what the Trump administration qualifies as a sign of radicalization, advocates warn.
"It uses organizations used in community support. Organizations that offer mental-health aid. The way we've seen it roll out from the outside is a way to use their relationships with communities to data gather and to facilitate knowledge of our community," Rifahie says. Under the program, camp counselors could collect data on the behavior of youth that, while entirely normal for a person of their age, is deemed suspicious by the DHS. "Now you have files on these teens that criminalizes them when they've done nothing wrong," she adds.
Further information on how the program will function is crucial for all community members. "We have concerns it will violate civil liberties," Hoq says. "We want to use the documents for more advocacy and to convince stakeholders that they should take a second look at this before they get involved."
An AAAJ–L.A. press release lambasted the Los Angeles city government for not upholding its duty to preserve the civil liberties of Muslim Angelenos. The office of Mayor Eric Garcetti did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the program at time of publication.
Both Hoq and Rifahie say they are particularly concerned about how such a program might be weaponized against Muslim-American communities nationwide under an administration that many charge has been hostile to Muslims, immigrants, and people of color, very broadly. Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the Trump administration's travel ban against five Muslim-majority nations. Trump's disparaging comments on Muslims alone have offered ample evidence that the ban was guided by a discriminatory animus and not a sober calculation of security concerns, analysts and advocates say.
Still, both Hoq and Rifahie continue to believe in the republic. There are means of holding Trump and his administration to account, even with the Supreme Court ruling and a Republican-controlled Congress, they say.
"A lot of people feel a sense of hopelessness and despair because of what happened with the Supreme Court," Rifahie says. "There is still an opportunity to have an effect in the legislative arena. Congress still has the potential of being reshaped. There are still different balances of power at play."
As for CVE, Rifahie reminds that how it functions is ultimately up to community stakeholders. "It's important for community members to empower themselves and know what's going on out there. The more community education we can do on CVE, the community will know how to proceed with caution with organizations working with the CVE program."
Hoq maintains that, despite the Supreme Court ruling, it is still possible and necessary to hold the administration accountable to its civil liberties violations through the legal system.
"Courts still matter," Hoq says. "If you look at the courts that first heard the Muslim ban challenges, they mostly ruled against it. We need to do the work at the local level, so first these programs don't get instituted."
As far as CVE, Hoq is ready for a looming legal fight. "If we do find violations, we will sue government agencies behind these programs."