The Guardian: “Registry used to track Arabs and Muslims dismantled by Obama administration”

by Joseph McKeown

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last week that it is dismantling the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), the outdated and discriminatory registration program that required certain immigrants from twenty-five Muslim-majority, Arab, and South Asian countries to register their presence in the US. The final publication of this DHS rule to fully terminate the NSEERS program is the latest move from the Obama administration to place roadblocks in the way of President-Elect Trump, who has threatened to prevent non-citizen Muslims from entering the US and keep them under surveillance inside the US.

As the Guardian explains, the NSEERS program was “one of the most contentious—and widely hated—elements of the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies in the wake of 9/11. More than 80,000 people from 25 listed countries, 24 of which had majority Muslim or Arab populations, were forced onto the scheme in which they were required to provide fingerprints and a photograph and periodically present themselves for in-person interviews with DHS officers.”

Although about 14,000 of those registered individuals were placed into removal deportation proceedings, none were prosecuted for any terrorist activities. Mohammad Jafar Alam, a member of the South Asian social justice group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) which actively campaigned to dismantle NSEEERS, says he knows from personal experience how it affected individuals and families. “The extreme mental, emotional distress, the financial problems, the pressures on a family and the isolation that happens is a punishment not just for one person, but everyone involved,” he tells the Guardian.

Joanne Lin, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which also strongly opposed NSEERS, says it was a “completely failed counterterrorism program. Out of 80,000 men who registered for it, there was not a single terrorism prosecution, yet it alienated Muslim and South Asian communities across the country.”

After DHS and FBI officials concluded it was discriminatory and ineffective, NSEERS was discontinued in 2011. But since the framework for the registry remained in place, the incoming Trump administration could have easily re-instated the program by putting majority-Muslim countries back onto the list. President-Elect Trump has called for a ban on all non-citizen Muslims entering the US, and he has also said he would enact “extreme vetting” for migrants and immigrants from countries deemed to be a terrorism threat. Kris Kobach, the secretary of state for Kansas and one of the original architects of NSEERS, who has been advising the Trump transition team on immigration and anti-terrorism issues, proposed last month that his priority for the DHS would be to “update and reimplement” the NSEERS program. By fully terminating the NSEERS program, the Obama administration is attempting to force Trump to undergo the formal notice-and-comment rulemaking process to implement a similar program; however, “there are certainly ways the Trump administration could impose this rule or a similar one without going through notice and comment,” American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) President William Stock tells Bloomberg BNA. “I think there will be parts of the Republican Party who will want to overcome this action by the administration,” he says.

In a statement, AILA says the NSEERS program “led to notorious ethnic profiling and civil rights violations.” Additionally, AILA’s members represented thousands of individuals required to register and witnessed how unjust the program was and how it brought shame to law-abiding individuals. Clients who tried to comply and voluntarily appeared for registration were treated like criminals and subjected to aggressive practices, including being handcuffed, denied access to attorneys, and put in detention. AILA Executive Director Benjamin Johnson says:

It is hard to quantify the immense negative impact NSEERS had on the fabric of our nation. It upended the lives of tens of thousands of business owners, scientists, and family members who were lawfully present in the United States, and all the while it failed miserably as a counterterrorism tool…Rescinding the regulation is a recognition that a dark chapter in our country's history can and should be closed, once and for all.

Royce Murray, Policy Director at the American Immigration Council agrees: “While we can all agree that national security must be a priority, the NSEERS registration program was widely regarded as an ineffective and obsolete counterterrorism tool. The next administration should not repeat the mistakes of the past and institute any discriminatory registry.”

Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights clinic at Pennsylvania State University, believes that rescinding the NSEERS structure will make Trump’s plans more difficult. “At the very least it is going to take time,” she tells the Guardian. “At most it will take a whole lot of time, as it will force the Trump administration to introduce a rule change that could be open to public comment and legal challenge.” Wadhia adds: “This is the best Christmas present I could have asked for."