President Barack Obama plans to dismantle a controversial immigrant registry that rights groups have long said unfairly targeted men from Arab- and Muslim-majority countries, in what appears to be an effort to block President-elect Donald Trump from easily reviving it.
The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) has been dormant since 2011, but Obama plans to dismantle its regulatory structure in the final weeks of his administration, the New York Times first reported on Thursday.
At its height, the programme allowed US officials to register and track foreign nationals from 25 countries primarily in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) welcomed the news on Thursday.
Robert McCaw, director of CAIR’s government affairs department, said the organisation thanked Obama “for finally putting to end what was widely perceived to be a massive profiling campaign targeting individuals based on their religion and ethnicity”.
The decision comes amid mounting concerns that NSEERS would be revived or even expanded after Trump is inaugurated as the next US president in January.
During the election campaign, the president-elect called to ban Muslims from coming to the US. When asked this week whether he intends to follow-through on plans to create a Muslim registry and impose a ban on Muslims entering the country, Trump responded, “You know my plans.”
“Registering and tracking Muslim visitors to the US isn’t only discriminatory, but a tremendous waste of our national security resources,” McCaw told Middle East Eye in a telephone interview on Thursday.
“And CAIR will fight any Trump administration attempt to resurrect or expand NSEERS to target Muslims residing in the US.”
Origins of the programme
NSEERS first came into effect in 2002. It forced non-immigrant visitors and foreign nationals already in the US, from a list of designated countries, to undergo “special registration” procedures.
This included providing fingerprints, a photograph, and undergoing interrogations by Department of Homeland Security officials.
Individuals could also be subjected to extra screening processes when entering the US, tracking of their whereabouts inside the country, and restrictions on which point of exit they could leave through, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
By 2003, the foreign nationals impacted were from 25 countries, including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Anyone that failed to properly register under the programme was at risk of being detained and deported from the US, and cases were reported in which refugees were mistakenly subjected to deportation proceedings, as well.
Individuals who lived in the US for decades legally, and went to US immigration offices to register, were also subjected to detention, according to personal accounts shared by Hatem Bazian, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“If this would have happened in Syria, I would have expected it, but to have it happen in the United States – well it’s just unbelievable to me,” said Emad Takleh, a Syrian businessman who had lived in the US for 18 years and was detained after going to register under the programme.
Takleh was interrogated for hours and detained for several days, including in a cell with 50 other people, Bazian reported.
The administration of former US President George W. Bush forced 80,000 men and teens to undergo NSEERS’ “special registration”, subjected 8,000 men on the list of designated countries to FBI interviews, and placed another 5,000 foreign nationals in preventive detention, according to US law professors Jules Lobel and David Cole.
“Yet as of September 2007, not one of these people stands convicted of a terrorist crime. The government’s record, in what is surely the largest campaign of ethnic profiling since the Japanese internment of World War II, is 0 for 93,000,” they wrote at the time.
In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was “eliminating redundant programs” and suspending the NSEERS registration procedures.
The department “has implemented several new automated systems that capture arrival and exit information on non-immigrant travelers to the United States” and therefore decided “that recapturing this data manually when a non-immigrant is seeking admission to the United States is redundant and no longer provides any increase in security”.
By that time, however, more than 13,000 men who were registered under the NSEERS programme faced deportation proceedings.
Calls to suspend NSEERS grew after Trump victory
While the programme has gone unused since 2011, the regulations that informed it and would allow it to restart remained in place, the New York Times reported. The regulatory change will be published in the federal registry on Friday, according to the newspaper.
That’s a demand that gained traction earlier this month, when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman urged Obama in an open letter to dismantle the NSEERS regulations altogether.
He said the programme had not resulted in a single terrorism-related conviction and did not achieve its purpose of reducing terrorist activity in the US.
“We can’t risk giving President-elect Trump the tools to create an unconstitutional religious registry,” Schneiderman wrote.
“We can never allow our nation to return to the dark days of Japanese internment. By finally dismantling the NSEERS program now, President Obama can make a repeat of that horror significantly more difficult.”
A group of tech industry professionals also recently released a public letter saying they would refuse to build databases that would profile people based on their religious beliefs, or facilitate mass deportations.
“We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies,” the letter reads.
According to McCaw at CAIR, the Obama administration’s decision means that Trump cannot simply resurrect NSEERS; Trump would now have to go back to the federal register and seek comment from the public on the programme.
“There’s a whole regulatory process that has to go into effect for Trump to resurrect or expand this program and he’s going to be met with a well-waged fight,” McCaw said.
He added that the NSEERS programme “created a special class of people in the United States who we did not trust,” and told Muslims in the US and abroad that they would “always be under suspicion”.
“I just think we need to be vigilant against the tracking of any separate religious or ethnic community in the United States under a future Trump administration,” McCaw said. “And we’re going to have to push back at all attempts to divide us as a nation.”