Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security, and the United States Citizens and Immigration Services (USCIS) introduced a plan that would reduce the Naturalization Background backlog, as well as the green card backlog. Officials hope to move nearly 900,000 applicants by the end of September. This is great news for the Muslim and Arab communities, respectively; however a much larger battle on the immigration front looms, in the form of NSEERS.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Department of Justice created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS or “special registration” program), a tracking process that required visitors from certain countries — and others whom an immigration inspector decides meet certain classified criteria — to be fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned by immigration officers. The most controversial part of this program required men from twenty-five predominantly Muslim and Arab countries to report to immigration offices around the country for fingerprints, photographs, and lengthy questioning by officers.
There are criminal and civil penalties associated with NSEERS, including arrest, detention, monetary fines and/or removal from the United States.
The domestic “call-in” registration program resulted in hundreds of detentions and much disarray at understaffed local immigration offices. More than 13,000 men who complied with call-in registration were placed in removal proceedings. Publicly available information from DHS indicates that approximately 84,000 individuals registered through this process. In addition, thousands of men who were required to register failed to do so, and are therefore vulnerable to NSEERS penalties. Of the 84,000 individual registered through NSEERS, 0 have been charged with terrorism.
One example of how NSEERS hurts members of our community involves a man, originally from Pakistan, who is a legally blind elderly gentleman, residing in Brooklyn, New York. He came to the United States to seek medical treatment for his blindness and has been living here for the past ten years. He overstayed his visa and became undocumented. In the winter of 2003, he learned of special registration at a town hall meeting with DHS officials. At the meeting, he was encouraged to register and told that registration would legalize his status. Subsequently, he appeared for special registration and, to his surprise, was detained by immigration officials due to his status. During his detention, he asked the government officials why he was being detained when he was told he would get legal status. He received no answer. Despite the fact that it was winter, he was detained in a highly air-conditioned room and told to remove his winter clothing. He was detained for 18 hours until he was released the following day at 4 o’clock in the morning. While he was detained, his passport was taken away. Lacking any identification or immigration status, he has been unable to obtain necessary medical treatment for his eyes. Following his detention, he was placed in removal proceedings.
In March of 2007 the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) launched the “End The Shame of NSEERS” advertising campaign to shed light on this issue. As the topic of immigration reform picks up steam, governmental officials and agencies must not fail to address NSEERS. To learn more about how you can help in ending the shame of NSEERS, please visit www.adc.org.
The writer is legal advisor with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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