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U.S.: Washington Shifts Immigration Policy Criticized By Arab, Muslim Advocates

  • Andrew Tully

The United States tightened its borders following the events of 11 September 2001. Because all of the hijackers involved in the terrorist attacks were suspected Arab members of the fundamentalist Muslim network Al-Qaeda, all men trying to enter the United States from countries with suspected ties to Al-Qaeda have been required to register with the government. That program -- which came under criticism from rights groups -- now will be replaced by a broader system that will monitor visitors of all backgrounds.

Washington, 4 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Since late 2001, about 177,000 Arab or Muslim men ages 18 and older have been required to register with the U.S. government under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).

Of this number, nearly 14,000 were suspected of immigration violations and more than 2,800 were detained -- 23 of them still in custody, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The program may have caught few potential terrorists or other lawbreakers, but it did generate much criticism from Arab and Muslim advocacy groups and human rights organizations. All complained that only Arab and Muslim men were being unfairly subjected to the registration program, making them victims of racial or cultural profiling.

In announcing the end of NSEERS on 1 December, however, Asa Hutchinson -- the U.S. undersecretary for border security -- said his agency was not reacting to criticism, but merely retiring one program in favor of a new, more efficient system called US-VISIT. That system will use digital photography and fingerprints to keep track of foreign visitors and begins operations on 5 January.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, welcomed the end of NSEERS. He told RFE/RL that it was objectionable to his organization because it targeted people by race, religion, and national origin -- something that is antithetical to American justice.

"We are pleased that the old NSEERS program of special registration is being phased out. We believe that it was counterproductive and that it did little or nothing to promote national security and only served to alienate thousands of law-abiding visitors to the United States," Hooper said.

There was no comment from Hooper on the motive for dropping NSEERS. But Todd Gaziano, who studies legal issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy center in Washington, says he believes there is no reason to believe the administration of President George W. Bush is backing down under criticism.

Gaziano tells RFE/RL that after the attacks of 2001, the United States realized it was involved in a war like none it had ever fought before. As a result, he says, it has had to improvise methods to fight it -- and sometimes it must fine-tune these methods as it learns more about the enemy it faces. So to Gaziano, Hutchinson's explanation makes sense.

"The reason that they would suspend one program and try another is because of sensitivity, as well as [that] they think they can do it better. Without a lot more knowledge, I think we as citizens ought to assume that they have found a more effective way," Gaziano said.

In fact, Gaziano says, the United States has few options in its effort to keep out terrorists. And to do nothing, he says, would be irresponsible.

"Something's got to give if we're going to be serious about keeping track of potential terrorists in this country. Either we need to register everyone and keep files as European nations do, or we need to get serious and apply the technology -- with appropriate protections -- to be able to look for the people who really ought to raise suspicions. I think it would be irresponsible to do neither," Gaziano said.

Gaziano acknowledged that the shift from MSEERS to US-VISIT was probably motivated by sensitivity to Arabs and Muslims. He again noted the improvisational nature of fighting the war on terrorism, but expressed confidence that US-VISIT will be well-structured, even if there is a chance that it may run into initial operational snags:

"Let's hope that they have more information than we [ordinary people] do, and let's hope that they have sufficient expertise, that they can see what's working and what doesn't, and that they have other background knowledge to design a good program," Gaziano said.

Shukri Abed sees the situation differently. He specializes in issues of the Arab and Islamic worlds at the Middle East Institute, another private Washington think tank.

Abed welcomes the end of the NSEERS program, telling RFE/RL that it appears the Bush administration is beginning to realize that it can no longer ignore the mistrust of America that is growing among foreign Arabs and Muslims.

"Obviously, we have reached a very low point in Arab-American relations. [Phasing out NSEERS is] absolutely an improvement, but the question is if it is a tactical improvement or strategic improvement. [Bush administration officials] know the anger that prevails in the Arab world, so America has to wake up [to] that," Abed said.

He says he hopes the improvement is strategic -- that is, that the Bush administration is finally realizing that it cannot ignore the needs of Arabs and Muslims. If the shift is only tactical, he says, it means that Bush merely wants to save face.

Abed has lived in the United States for 25 years and says he admires American culture and law. He also says Bush appears to be a thoughtful and compassionate man, and applauds his repeated assurances that the war against terrorism is not a war against Arabs and Muslims.

But Abed says there are too many in Bush's administration -- he named no names -- who either do not understand or else ignore the anger that U.S. policy in the Middle East causes among Arabs. In particular, he cited Washington's support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Abed says it is no wonder U.S. officials have to be careful about whom they admit into the country. But he contends that the way America screens visitors merely engenders more anger:

"People are coming from the Middle East now very angry, and maybe we should go to the source of that anger. Most Arabs are very angry at the United States, and some of them take it to the extreme, of course, by trying to harm the United States, and that's what we want to avoid. [Security] should go beyond searching people and humiliating people. It should go to the roots of this problem by countering it through real aid -- socially and economically and politically -- to the Arab world," Abed said.

Abed says the United States may have to continue relying on heavy security for the indefinite future -- or until it adopts more meaningful policies in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

(Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)