NEW YORK – Foreign visitors forced to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service as part of its new security program say they should be given more warning before the deportation threats start.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has been hobbling together a system to make sure foreign visitors that may pose a security threat to the United States are tracked after they enter the country. The plan requires non-immigrant males age 16 and older from 20 countries to register their whereabouts and itineraries while in the United States. Most are students, visitors on extended business travel or people visiting family.
Persons meeting the registration criteria must be fingerprinted and photographed, and be able to provide detailed information about their backgrounds and the purpose of their stay.
The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System is being implemented by the INS to make sure there's a solid, effective entry-exit program in place by 2005.
The Justice Department is overseeing the tracking process, but has been criticized for not alerting foreigners of the requirements.
"A lot of people, they do not know about it," said immigration attorney Omar Mohammedi. "Some client came to me and he said he was just going through the Internet and saw it and he was surprised. He was scared."
"It's not reaching people and even a lot of people it's reaching are too scared and confused to act on it, they just don't understand." said Jason Erb, director of government affairs for the Council on American and Islamic Relations. "There's confusion about who actually should go register and there's still a lack of awareness among a lot of people."
But the Federation for American Immigration Reform says that it's up to foreigners to do their homework on immigration laws.
Visitors "need to respect these registration laws," said FAIR spokesman David Ray. "When you're a foreign visitor in a country, the onus is on you to play by the rules, to obey the requirement and to know what is required of you while you're a guest in that country."
Erb said that CAIR has sent out messages to preachers and mosques telling them to remind their congregations of the requirement. Other groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee have included reminders on their Web pages and in listservs.
But "the word has definitely not reached everyone it should," Erb said.
The move to track about 35 million visitors who come to the United States each year was made in reaction to reports that several of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the United States legally at the time they boarded the four planes used in the terror attacks.
NSEERS is supposed to help U.S. officials identify wanted criminals and known terrorists entering the borders and enable the INS to determine immediately when temporary foreign visitors have overstayed their visas.
Permanent legal residents with green cards, those seeking political asylum and diplomats are exempted.
The INS claims a long-standing process of tracking visitors from 112 countries traveling on tourist visas has worked well.
Immigration groups pushing for more stringent immigration controls say the system is a good first effort but they're wary of how effective it will be.
"The concern here is, this isn't extensive enough and it's almost ad hoc and slapdash," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "Generally speaking, I want the INS to know what foreign citizens are here and when they leave, if they leave … but I'm not sure this is the most effective way of doing that given the resources that we have."
Krikorian said NSEERS seems like a watered down reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The penalty for not complying with reporting requirements is possible arrest and deportation.
"This is a way to limit the immigration control response to 9/11 as much as possible," he said. "If this is just the first step toward experimenting with and implementing a broader system, then the stumbles it's going to encounter will be excusable. If this is the whole response, then it's not going to work."
Monday marked the registration deadline for men from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria — all on the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism — who were admitted to the United States as non-immigrants on or before Sept. 10, 2002, and who planned on staying past Monday.
On Monday, men from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were added to the list of countries whose nationals must register with the United States when they came to visit.
Visitors from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen who were here as non-immigrants before Oct. 1 and who plan on staying past Jan. 10, must register with their local INS office by Jan. 10.
Critics of the system say the Justice Department hasn't done enough to advertise the requirements to people they affect. Observers are also worried that the INS — in the middle of a massive overhaul that will include splitting the agency into an immigration services unit and a separate immigration enforcement bureau in the Department of Justice — doesn't have the resources it needs to keep track of everyone.
"The INS has lines snaking out the door by seven in the morning outside the office," Krikorian said, stressing the agency simply doesn't have the resources to register or track everyone to whom the law pertains. "Are they getting the most bang for the buck here ... I would say, probably not."
Other groups agree.
"The paucity of information will make it likely that otherwise law-abiding people will not register or will fail to comply with program requirements and, therefore, be considered per se guilty of a criminal misdemeanor, deportable, and permanently barred from ever re-entering the U.S.," the American Immigration Lawyers Association said in a statement. "Is this the best use of our resources?"