The controversial federal policy has been dropped, but that’s no help to families broken up by its deportations
In 2002, Feras Rafee, a naturalized American citizen born in Jordan, was a student at Touro Law School in Central Islip on Long Island. Although he had not yet graduated or passed the bar, Rafee was already fielding legal inquiries from his nervous mother-in-law. Her son, a 26-year-old born in Lebanon, had entered the United States in 2000 on a student visa to study English at Montclair State University in New Jersey but had since dropped out and found a job working at a grocery store.
Sparking the mother-in-law’s concern was a new government program requiring men from Middle Eastern countries—including Lebanon—living in the country on temporary visas to report to their local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office to be fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned. Having violated the terms of his visa by leaving school, Rafee’s brother-in-law was technically in danger of being deported. But feeling a duty to follow the directives of the government, particularly in the wake of 9/11, and not believing he would be deported for a civil offense, he went to his local ICE office to register. He was detained on the spot and six months later he was deported.
Eight years later, sitting in his law office in Bay Ridge, Rafee recounted his brother-in-law’s experience with the government program—which was recently withdrawn—and said of the policy, “It was a trick.”
His criticism of the program is widely felt in Bay Ridge, with its large Arab and Muslim populations, and community activists say the damage continues to affect families there. “The male in the family was put in deportation hearings and the family has lost the individual who provides for them,” said Hizam Wahib, the legal services coordinator for the Arab American Family Support Center, a social service organization based in Bay Ridge that provides legal aid to Arab residents throughout the city.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the implementation of the National Security Entry Exit Registration System—commonly known by the acronym NSEERS. The program required men from 24 specific Middle Eastern or Muslim-majority countries (and North Korea) to register with the Department of Homeland Security upon arrival in the United States and be fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned. Citizens of the targeted countries who were already in the United States prior to September 11 on nonimmigrant visas—as a tourist, student, or worker—were required to register at their local ICE office during a special registration period between November 2002 and April 2003.
The policy grew out of bipartisan legislation passed in 1996, which mandated that the government establish an entry/exit registration system by 2005 to monitor the flow of immigrants. But the eventual product—NSEERS—and its attention to Middle Eastern men was a result of September 11 and an attempt to prevent future attacks. In a December 2003 press release, the Department of Homeland Security noted the importance of the policy in light of the September 11 attacks: “NSEERS enables DHS to determine instantly when such an alien has overstayed his visa, which was the case with three of the 9/11 hijackers.”
But in the course of looking for potential terrorists already in the country, the government would also encounter a large number of foreigners who had overstayed their visas but posed no identifiable threat to national security. As Rafee remembered it, the understanding in Arab communities was that the program was an opportunity for those who had violated the terms of their visas—a civil, rather than criminal, offense—to wipe the slate clean.
In April 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that nationals of all 25 countries originally required to comply with the NSEERS program were no longer required to do so, effectively ending the NSEERS program. In the April 28 edition of the “Federal Register,” a little-known government publication used to announce new government policies, DHS indicated that the NSEERS program had become redundant, as other policies had been put in place to capture the biometric data of incoming foreign nationals. “In light of the development of and improvements to the Department’s information collection systems and international information sharing agreements, the Secretary has determined that subjecting nationals from designated countries to a special registration process that manually recaptures data already collected through automated systems is redundant and does not provide any increase in security.”
But the announcement by the department did not address the fate of some 3,000 men—including Rafee’s brother-in-law—who had complied with the domestic registration requirement and been placed in deportation hearings or the 11,000 others who were investigated and therefore continue to face challenges as they attempt to apply for a green card or citizenship.
Of the 80,000 men who voluntarily reported to ICE offices for the domestic registration, no suspected terrorists were identified, according to a 2008 report by the Immigration Policy Center—a nonprofit that conducts research on issues related to immigration. Of those who were placed into deportation proceedings—which can take several months or longer and do not always result in deportation—most were guilty of minor visa violations, like Rafee’s brother-in-law. Explaining the dismay of those who registered with ICE and were deported, Rafee said, “They thought they were following the law.” In Bay Ridge, as Wahib noted, many families were economically devastated when their male breadwinners were detained and deported.
In early 2003, when the domestic registration took place, the organization was inundated with phone calls and visits from clients who—after experiencing persecution in the wake of 9/11—were afraid of the government and did not know if they should comply with the program. Remembering the atmosphere in 2003, Wahib said, “There was a lot of fear.” For some men, these fears were compounded by the fact that they had overstayed their temporary visa—which is not uncommon—or were otherwise out of compliance with the terms of their visa.
A loose coalition of national advocacy organizations began pressuring the government to abandon the NSEERS policy soon after its introduction. Since the government’s announcement last April ending the program, the coalition has turned its efforts towards the fate of those who were deported or who are currently in deportation proceedings because of the policy. “There’s a lot of confusion among communities, lawyers, and advocates,” said Priya Murthy, policy director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, one of the coalition partners.
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has not publicly announced how it will proceed with those who were put into deportation proceedings after complying with the program. Coalition partners met with department officials in June 2011 and, among other issues, discussed the fate of these individuals. Sameera Hafiz, the policy director at Rights Working Group, one of the coalition partners, said that at that meeting homeland-security representatives said that they would consider each individual on a case-by-case basis. The coalition is still working with the department to develop a more concrete and lenient policy for dealing with these individuals.
The lack of clarity is evident in the pessimism of immigration attorneys and social service providers in Bay Ridge, where no one is holding out much hope for those in deportation proceedings or those who have already been deported. “Unfortunately,” Wahib said, “now people that have a deportation order under NSEERS cannot stop it.”
Rafee recently checked in with his brother-in-law—who is now married with two children and working in Dubai as a graphic designer. Their conversation turned to NSEERS and the graphic designer’s chances of returning to the U.S. where his mother and siblings all live. For violating his visa in 2003, Rafee’s brother-in-law was barred from returning for 10 years. But even then he will only be able to apply for a green card using his mother—a naturalized U.S. citizen—as his sponsor. That process, according to Rafee, could take up to 13 years.