- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

The Bush administration has pledged to eliminate special security checks imposed on men entering the United States from a list of mainly Muslim countries considered a risk for terrorism.

“Our long-term goal,” senior homeland security official Asa Hutchinson told Arab-American leaders Friday, “is to treat [all visitors] the same way, and not based on where you come from.”

Mr. Hutchinson also distinguished the approach of the Homeland Security Department from those of other parts of the administration, notably Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department.

Under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, introduced in November 2002, men holding visas from one of 25 listed nations — including the Muslim-majority nations of Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran — have had to be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed at U.S. ports of entry.

Until December, immigrants from listed nations also had to re-register with immigration officials every year they stayed in the United States.

Immigration officials apparently were unprepared for the volume. Some immigrants had to wait in line for many hours to register.

Officials were accused of leading a “fishing expedition” after thousands of men with minor irregularities in their immigration status, but no suspected link to terrorism, were detained and subjected to deportation proceedings.

Mr. Hutchinson, who is undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security, said the annual registration element of the registration system had been suspended in December and that the next step would be to eliminate the port of entry procedures.

“It is our intention to end [the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System] altogether,” he told the 21st national convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Crystal City.

He said that the introduction of U.S.-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) — which he called “unbiased technology” — would eliminate the need for special procedures because all visa holders would be photographed and fingerprinted upon entry to biometrically confirm their identities.

Officials said the entry-exit registration system probably would be eliminated next year, as U.S.-VISIT is expanded from airports and major seaports to all points of entry, including land crossings.

“By the end of 2005, when U.S.-VISIT is fully in place, there would really be no need for any additional procedures,” said homeland security spokesman Bill Strassberger.

Intelligence officials with the Department of Homeland Security — who declined to be named or quoted — have said they think al-Qaeda is seeking to recruit U.S. citizens and passport holders from countries that would not arouse an immediate suspicion of a terrorist link.

Mr. Strassberger said the need to respond to changing al-Qaeda tactics was part of the reasoning behind the decision to eliminate the current system. “Our continuing fight against terrorism is going to be increasingly based on intelligence that allows us to know who might be a threat,” he said.

Mr. Hutchinson promised there would be no repeat of the immigration detentions that occurred after September 11, 2001.

“We will review every case where another agency requests detention based on association with terrorists,” he said. “There will be no blanket detention.”

Homeland security officials said the entry-exit registration system was a Justice Department program and that by canceling it, Mr. Hutchinson was demonstrating that the new department was taking a different approach.

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