13 January 2003
U.S. Immigration Authorities Tighten Visitor Registration Requirements
National security enhanced while visitors welcomed, officials say
By Stephen Kaufman
Washington — U.S. immigration authorities are implementing tightened registration procedures on foreign visitors in a policy designed to enhance national security while continuing to allow foreign visitors to enter the United States.
The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) was launched September 11, 2002 to register selected foreign visitors with U.S. immigration authorities. At U.S. ports of entry, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has questioned and fingerprinted thousands of visitors from 145 countries before allowing them into the United States.
At the same time, several groups of men already in the United States have been asked to report to INS offices for similar registration. Most of the people affected by the new registration procedures are citizens of Arab or Muslim majority countries. U.S. officials insist that the new system is based solely on national security concerns about terrorist threats.
"The last thing in the world we want to do is discourage people from ... the Arab world, from continuing to visit the United States," explained Richard Haass, the State Department's Director for Policy Planning, in a speech to a Moroccan audience January 10. "[W]hat we are trying to do is find a balance, to strike a balance, between retaining our openness and our welcome, while at the same time providing the necessary security," he said.
In a June 6, 2002 speech announcing the NSEERS program, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the purpose of the registration requirement for the visa applicants and current visitors was to "determine if foreign visitors follow their stated plans while guests in our country, or even if they overstay the legal limit of their visas."
Most of the approximately 300 million yearly foreign visitors to the United States come as tourists, students, for business purposes, or to visit friends and relatives. According to most estimates, the vast majority pursue their stated purpose and return home. However, the National Commission on Terrorism report released more than one year before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks said that as many as two million visitors who legally enter the country each year "overstayed their visa and remained here to live." In 1996, well before that report was issued, Congress had requested INS to implement a comprehensive entry-exit registration system by 2005 in order to gain a better knowledge of who was in the country.
"[NSEERS] is a well-established way of making sure that visitors do not try to disappear into society, and that they stick to their stated plans while in the country," said Ashcroft on June 6. "Our European allies have been using such registration systems for decades. For example, long-term visitors to France must register within 7 days of arrival, every 12 months thereafter, and whenever they change their address."
Registration requirements for foreign visitors have technically been on the U.S. law books since 1952 but have not been enforced until NSEERS was implemented exactly one year after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Over the years, INS authorities have found it extremely difficult to verify that overseas guests are following the purpose of their visas as stated in their application, are living at the addresses they specified, or even if they left the country after the purpose for their visit ended.
Justice Department Spokesman Jorge Martinez pointed to the example of the nineteen September 11, 2001 hijackers, all of whom arrived in the United States on valid visas. Ideally, he said, had a program like NSEERS been in place, it would have been a valuable tool that could have aroused suspicions towards those individuals.
"All of the nineteen hijackers were doing something else other than what they said they were going to do while they were here," he said. "Three of them overstayed their visas. None of them lived wherever they said they were going to live." In fact, he added, some of those who held student visas "weren't even enrolled in college."
NSEERS, whether used to register visa applicants abroad or those already in the United States, would verify the stated purpose of the visas, residential addresses, and would include photographs and fingerprints of the visa holder. The fingerprints, said Martinez, would be matched against databases of wanted terrorists, felons or other criminals.
Also, should a visitor overstay his or her visa, "the system would automatically give you a notice that this is happening — something that we didn't have before," he said.
As a first step toward implementing a comprehensive system by 2005, visitors in the United States from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria — all countries designated by the State Department as "state sponsors of terrorism" — were asked to register with the INS by December 18, 2002. A second group of non-immigrant male aliens over the age of 16 who are citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates or Yemen were ordered to register by January 10, and a third group consisting of Saudi and Pakistani citizens have until February 21 to comply.
Given the overwhelming predominance of Muslim and Arab-majority countries on the list, some have charged that the program is racially, ethnically or politically motivated. For example, citizens of Armenia, a Christian-majority country, were originally required to register in December, but that requirement was subsequently lifted. On December 24, community advocacy groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), filed a class action lawsuit against the INS and Attorney General Ashcroft.
Martinez explained that INS and Justice officials meet "on an ongoing basis" with their colleagues in other federal agencies to review the latest national security and intelligence information. "Whatever that information tells us, if we need to take appropriate action or if we need to add any countries or alter the criteria accordingly, that will be done," he said.
The authorities, said Martinez, use "discretionary criteria" which "apply to anyone, from any country in the world" at all U.S. ports of entry in order to determine which individuals are subjected to extra scrutiny. So far, he said, individuals from as many as 145 countries have been registered by NSEERS.
"That's proof positive right there that this is not a system based on race or religion or ethnicity. It is solely based on national security and intelligence-based criteria about terrorist threats," he said.
Criticism of the program also came in a December 26 letter to Attorney General Ashcroft from Senators Russell Feingold (Democrat from Wisconsin), Edward Kennedy (Democrat from Massachusetts), and Representative John Conyers (Democrat from Michigan) when hundreds of registrants were detained in Los Angeles after they had showed up at INS offices to comply with the new requirements. The three members of Congress charged that many had been "arrested and detained without reasonable justification."
Justice spokesman Martinez countered that the individuals detained at INS registration are not under arrest but are kept in custody until a national security check is run to make sure they are not on any terrorism, criminal or felon watch lists.
In the case of the Los Angles detentions, not only did the authorities find individuals in violation of their visa terms but also many "serious criminal violators," who could pose a potential harm to the public, according to Martinez.
"You have a twice-convicted child molester, you have a couple of individuals with assault and battery charges with deadly weapons, you have narcotics violations, narcotics convictions or charges," he said. "These are individuals, mind you, that come from countries that sponsor terrorism, who are considered an elevated national security concern because of national security and other intelligence information, and ... are people with serious violations of either criminal or immigration law."
In some cases, where individuals were detained but had lawfully filed an application to stay in the country, Martinez said immigration officials would take those circumstances into account. But, he added, for "any individual who is out of status or in illegal status, INS has a duty and a responsibility according to the policies and procedures that are in place to ... temporarily detain that individual."
Another criticism voiced by NSEERS detractors is the view that an individual with ties to terrorism would be reluctant to register with U.S. authorities. Not so, argues Martinez. Besides the possibility that some individuals might not be aware that their names are on databases or watch lists, many would also fear drawing extra scrutiny for violating the law.
"It is known that the al Qaeda leadership tells its cell members to assimilate within the community, to comply with all laws and regulations, and not to shine a spotlight on any terrorist planning activities that they may be conducting," he said, adding that "[September 11 hijacker] Mohammad Atta actually applied for an adjustment of [visa] status."
He also speculated that when faced with the choice of being in criminal violation of the law or trying to "bluff their way through a federal law enforcement officer," some would-be terrorists might even choose to leave the United States.
Since its deployment on September 11, 2002, NSEERS can already claim several successes, said Martinez. For example, during the past four months, "we have identified approximately 250 individuals who fall in these categories of known terrorists, wanted criminals, or wanted felons or other individuals who are considered non-admissible [to the United States]."
This is only the first step in a comprehensive system, he said. And due to changing intelligence and national security requirements, the Saudi and Pakistani registrations due in February "might not be the last [call in] notices."
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)