by Ben Bain
January 11, 2006
Immigrant and Arab-American organizations say a post-September 11 security measure designed to identify potential terrorists is continuing to target visitors from Muslim countries unfairly, even though the Bush administration said it had intended to eliminate the scheme in favor of a universal registration requirement for travelers to the US.
The national security entry/exit registration system (NSEERS), a controversial system first implemented in September 2002 by the Justice Department, established a national registry for temporary foreign visitors who were identified as potential security risks or who came from one of 25 countries. The countries designated by NSEERS are predominately Muslim, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
NSEERS became a lightning rod for critics who charged that the US was targeting all Muslim visitors – including those already inside the US – in a heavy-handed effort to identify terrorist threats. Roughly 83,000 people already in the US registered under the program but 14,000 of those faced deportation proceedings after they were found to be in the country illegally.
Senior homeland security officials, including the former secretary, Tom Ridge, had said the scheme could be ended after the administration set up its US-Visit border control program, which requires all travelers to the US to give fingerprints as proof of identity. But with US-Visit now largely in force, the administration has maintained much of the NSEERS.
In a letter on Tuesday to Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, James J. Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, called for an immediate end to the program, saying it was unproductive and singled out "individuals based on national origin and penalizing them for their co-operation."
He added: "[The program] has instead compromised the relationship between law enforcement and the Arab and Muslim immigrant communities and damaged the US image abroad while failing to contribute significantly to national security." The US has curbed the program since setting up US-Visit but identified visitors remain subject to interview.