WASHINGTON – The government is scrapping a rule imposed after the Sept. 11 attacks (search) that required men and boys from countries with suspected links to terrorism to register multiple times with U.S. officials.
The rule forced tens of thousands of Middle Easterners and others visiting America to provide personal information to government officials.
Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's (search) undersecretary for border and transportation security, said a new registration system that will apply to more foreigners will be in place next month, making the current program unnecessary.
The program will end Tuesday when a notice is published in the Federal Register. Hutchinson said it could be used again if there is another terrorist attack linked to a foreign country.
Critics who contend the rule infringed on the rights of law-abiding citizens welcomed its end. But they tempered their response with warnings that the requirement already had caused damage in Arab and Muslim communities and that the government still has rules in place that discriminate against those groups.
"There's more that would have to be done to right this wrong, but it is one step toward making the program less discriminatory in the future," said Tim Edgar, American Civil Liberties Union (search) legislative counsel.
The rule is part of a program known as National Security Entry Exit Registration System (search), or NSEERS. It established a national registry for foreign visitors from 25 mainly Middle Eastern countries.
People from those nations were fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed by U.S. immigration officials. They had to re-register with the government after being in the country for 30 days and again after one year. A total of 83,519 people already in the United States complied with the order.
Nearly 14,000 people with suspected immigration violations were identified through NSEERS, and 2,870 were detained. However, just 23 remain in custody, the government says.
People from the 25 countries still will be required to register when they enter the country and must check in at immigration offices at specific airports when they leave.
"The Department of Homeland Security will utilize a more tailored system that is individual-specific rather than the broad categories by geography," Hutchinson said.
He said the decision to terminate the program was not influenced by harsh criticism from advocacy groups.
Hutchinson said it was made unnecessary by other programs such as a foreign student tracking system that began operating in August and the planned Jan. 5 launch of US-VISIT, which will digitally photograph and fingerprint millions of people who visit the United States each year on tourist, business and student visas.
Azhar Azeez, who sits on the board of directors of the Counsel on American Islamic Relations in Dallas, predicted the withdrawal of the re-registration rule could provide momentum for the end of other post-Sept. 11 government policies.
"There's a very huge opposition across the country of the Patriot Act too, so this whole thing is picking up speed and that's a good thing, because in my personal opinion, the Patriot Act is the most unpatriotic act this country has ever written," Azeez said.
The Patriot Act gave government broader surveillance authority, such as giving it more leeway to use wiretaps and monitor e-mail.