13 January 2003
U.S. Immigration Authorities Tighten Visitor Registration Requirements
(National security enhanced while visitors welcomed, officials say)
By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File Staff Writer
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
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 30 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
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
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
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
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."
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
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