A federal immigration program targeting men from Middle Eastern countries for mandatory registration was abruptly ended yesterday by the Homeland Security Department.
The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) had been criticized by Muslims and Arabs for singling out such a limited group, despite the fact that all the hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks were Muslim.
Asa Hutchinson, the Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for border and transportation security, told reporters that the change was not a response to criticism from civil liberties and minority-advocacy groups.
He said eliminating NSEERS was a first step toward implementing a full entry-exit system called US-VISIT. The system will use biometrics to identify travelers by their right and left index fingerprints, and digital photographs. Personal and travel information also will be collected.
US-VISIT goes online in January at 115 airports and 14 seaports. It is expected to be fully operational by 2005.
“The change will allow us to focus our efforts on the implementation of US-VISIT while preserving our ability to interview some visitors when necessary,” Mr. Hutchinson said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) last December sued the government, claiming immigration authorities unlawfully arrested large numbers of people in Los Angeles as they came forward to comply with the registration requirements.
“Today’s announcement will no doubt bring relief to thousands of people who are anxious about being singled out and discriminated against when visiting the United States,” said Nihad Awad, CAIR executive director.
NSEERS was created after September 11 and required men 18 and older from 25 countries to be interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed. Nearly 94,000 males were registered at ports of entry into the country, and an additional 83,000 voluntarily registered at federal immigration offices.
Of the approximately 177,000 who registered, 20 percent had overstayed their visas or had other immigration problems, and 11 persons were suspected of having ties to terrorism. A Homeland Security Department spokesman said he had no information on the final outcome of those cases.
Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said registration is a “false solution to a real problem and does not make us safer.”
“It was deeply flawed when it was implemented and remains flawed today,” she said.
Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he is skeptical the registration program is truly ending.
“Reports of the demise of NSEERS are exaggerated,” Mr. Edgar said. “To say it is being terminated is just not true and somewhat confusing and misleading to people.”
Officials conceded that some visitors still might undergo personal interviews before being allowed into the country. Men already registered must continue to reregister every time they enter the country and sign out before exiting.
“This program has not made us any safer and hinders efforts at international cooperation,” Mr. Edgar said.
The 25 countries on the list for registration are believed to have an al Qaeda presence. They include Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Those people required to register included students, business travelers or men visiting family for lengthy periods.
David Ray, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the registration program used by Homeland Security was only “piecemeal,” as terrorists can come from any country.
“It needs to be universal to be truly effective. We hope this is a move by the Homeland Security Department to move in a rapid fashion toward a universal system to more fully protect the American public from international terrorist networks.”
However, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said he is concerned the US-VISIT system will hurt commerce and tourism.
“A poorly designed system could clog consular operations, costing millions in commerce for the United States,” Mr. Davis said in a letter last week to Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
“Furthermore, an ineffective system could degrade border security,” he said.