WASHINGTON – It ain't over 'til it's over. And critics of a system that forced some immigrants to register with the government said it ain't over, despite reports to the contrary.
"The press says it's ended, and it hasn't really ended," said David Rocah, staff attorney for the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This is just compounding what is already a confusing program."
The Department of Homeland Security last week eased some elements of the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System Program, which requires fingerprinting, photographing and an immigration interview for all males over age 16 who come here from countries with suspected links to terrorism.
The registration system, instituted in September 2002 in the aftermath of terrorist attacks a year earlier, had required those men to register when they entered the country, to check back 30 to 40 days later, to check back again a year later and to register when they left the country.
Homeland Security officials said last week that they were doing away with the 30-day and annual registration renewal -- but that all other aspects of NSEERS would remain. That includes a requirement ordering affected immigrants to use designated ports to leave the country.
The government will also be able to impose special registration regulations on a case-by-case basis.
"It's important for everyone to understand that most of the provisions of this program remain in effect," Rocah said.
The government said 83,519 males from 25 countries -- all Muslim or Arab except for North Korea -- registered under NSEERS since September 2002, and deportation procedures were started against more than 13,800 of them.
The Homeland Security Department said in a news release that NSEERS was never intended to be permanent, and that it is only being altered now to make way for a new program that will track all visitors from countries that require a visa to enter this country. That program is expected to begin by the end of the month.
But an attorney for the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium said NSEERS was meant to "play catch-up to years of badly managed immigration tracking." The only reason it was not fully eliminated now, said Katherine Newell-Bierman, was to avoid criticism of "being lax."
Critics said the government never adequately notified people about the registration requirements in the first place, thereby boosting the number of people who had to face repercussions for failing to comply.
"They don't have a good means of letting people know," Newell-Bierman said. "The penalty if you don't register is that you'll be deported, and that's a very severe penalty."
And advocates fear that the same lack of information about the newly streamlined program will ensnare more immigrants.
"If they were leaving tomorrow, they would still need to register," at specific exit-ports, said Faiz Rehman, president of the National Council of Pakistani Americans. He mentioned the example of several Pakistani students who in the past did not depart from specified ports of exit and were not allowed back into the country upon their return.
The government said that the original registration program helped identify thousands of people in violation of immigration laws, and denied entrance to individuals with possible terrorist links.
But immigrant advocates said the program is flawed and discriminatory.
"It singles out Arabs and Muslims," Newell-Bierman said.
Rehman said the program "never served its original purpose of strengthening national security." He called the people placed under deportation orders "regular, hard-working people."
"It's absurd," he said. "Why would a terrorist come register?"