Three years ago this week, thousands of Arab and Muslim men were called to report to local immigration offices across the US to be registered, fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated. This was the "domestic call-in" phase of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a program initiated by then Attorney General John Ashcroft and marketed as a "vital line of defense in the war against terrorism."
The January 2003 group of NSEERS registrants were the second of four groups and the largest group of Arabs involved in the program.
NSEERS was so poorly conceived and badly managed that it created chaos and fear. Trust between the immigrant community and law enforcement was severely strained and, in the end, there was no evidence that any terrorists were apprehended as a result of the effort.
From the beginning NSEERS was plagued by problems. Local immigration offices, who were to implement the Department of Justice initiated program were under-funded, understaffed, and given inadequate guidance as to how NSEERS was to work. Surveying twelve immigration offices, early on, we found that some admitted outright confusion. Most had no idea how to broadcast the registration requirements to the affected communities. One office, in Los Angeles, expressed confidence that with the questionnaire and procedures they had developed, they would comfortably process 100 men a day. When 800 Iranians showed up at their offices to register on the December 2002 deadline, 100 were indeed processed, and because of confusion as to what to do with the remaining 700, they were detained. Reports of this mass detention spread like wildfire throughout impacted communities creating fear that negatively impacted all the remaining group of registrants.
Implementation was arbitrary. In some cases, individuals reporting were turned away and told they didn’t have to register. In too many cases, men who had requested changes in their immigration status pending were declared "out of status" and placed in deportation proceedings.
Overall the four groups were to have included an estimated 160,000 men from twenty-four Arab and Muslim countries and a few additional men from North Korea. Of this total, only 83,000 actually registered. Many of the others simply left the US (there were reports, for example, of thousands of Pakistanis fleeing to Canada in the days before men from that country were to register). Many others, after hearing reports from their counterparts decided not to register-thereby placing themselves in additional jeopardy.
Most disturbing of all is the fact that of the 83,000 who actually complied with NSEERS, almost 14,000 were reportedly found deportable. Because we have been rebuffed in our efforts to obtain more detailed data about the program, hard statistics are not available. We know the macro numbers (83,000 and 14,000). What we don’t know is how many of the 14,000 have actually been deported or the breakdown of the status violations of those who are still here in the US.
In addition to the broad sweep, we also know anecdotes from individuals who have sought assistance. Some of the stories are deeply disturbing. There are young men, students, who had changed academic programs and had, therefore, requested a change in their status or others who had married and had a change in status pending-all of whom were arbitrarily found to be deportable.
Significant press attention was given to one case of three brothers caught up in the NSEERS web. The brothers, who had come to the US from Morocco as children, grew up in New York City unaware of their problematic immigration status until the oldest brother began applying to college. Although by that time aware of that they were out of status, the three brothers and their father complied with NSEERS and were placed in removal proceedings. The father’s case was dismissed on a technicality, leaving three young men deportable from the only home they know.
The bottom line is that NSEERS is a failed and unfair program. It made no contribution to national security. It made more difficult needed cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement agents and gave the US a black eye in the Arab and Muslim worlds, undercutting our public diplomacy efforts. Polling now shows that our treatment of Arab and Muslim immigrants has, in some Middle East countries, eclipsed Iraq and Palestine as a major source of negative feelings about America.
After the Department of Homeland Security was created one of its early actions was to suspend aspects of the NSEERS program. Speaking before an Arab American audience in mid-2004 Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson announced that, "It is our hope to completely end this special registration program because our long term goal is to treat everybody the same way and not based upon where you come from." A good move. However, turnovers in the 2nd Bush Administration and the crisis brought on by Hurricane Katrina, intervened to distract DHS. To date, the program remains on the books and the residual impact of NSEERS on the thousands of lives it has affected is also still with us.
That is why a coalition of Arab American, Muslim American, and immigrant rights groups are calling on DHS to finally terminate NSEERS, terminate removal proceedings against those who complied with the program’s registration requirements, and terminate proceedings against those whose only violations is their failure to have registered.
It’s past time to put the shame and mess created by NSEERS behind us.