NSEERS: Time for DHS to Clean it Up (Not Sweep it Under the Rug)


On Monday, June 4, Rights Working Group will release The NSEERS Effect: A Decade of Racial Profiling, Fear, and Secrecy, a report critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). NSEERS is a long-discredited and discriminatory program launched by the federal government in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.  The report was prepared for Rights Working Group by the Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights. NSEERS, in part, required male visitors from predominantly Muslim nations to register with the federal government for fingerprinting, photographs, and lengthy, invasive interrogations. The specifics of NSEERS revealed it to be ineffective and a clear example of discriminatory and arbitrary racial profiling. The NSEERS Effect documents the ways in which individuals and families have been and continue to be harmed by NSEERS as well as the Obama administration’s failure to provide redress to all individuals impacted by the program.

Although NSEERS continues to devastate many individuals, their families and communities, in April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a memorandumregarding individuals impacted by NSEERS that offered only very limited relief to some individuals negatively impacted by this discriminatory program. Through this memo, favorable consideration is limited to extremely narrow circumstances, such as those where individuals could not comply with the program because they received inaccurate information from the government or were hospitalized and unable to comply. DHS also retains the regulatory framework of NSEERS, conveniently tucking it in the agency’s back pocket in the event DHS chooses to revive discriminatory practices in the future under the guise of national security.  For more information on this memo, please see Rights Working Group’s Policy Update.

Years of documentation have demonstrated how the shifting registration requirements and conflicting information released by the government made it intensely difficult to comply. As quoted in The NSEERS Effect, immigration attorney Denyse Sabagh reported, “I represented many individuals subject to NSEERS since its inception in 2002.   The program was sloppy in its original set-up due to the rapid execution, no additional funding for implementation, no additional staff and a general lack of clear guidance.  Initially, the regulations of the program were unclear to all parties involved (affected immigrants, immigration lawyers, and even government staff) and resulted in mistakes and misinformation. For many affected individuals it was difficult to register because of long lines in front of registration offices, people being turned away, unclear, contradicting, or missing information, and procedural mistakes made by the staff of the government agencies.”

Despite the documented difficulties in complying with NSEERS, DHS’s new memo provides no relief to individuals who face immigration consequences after complying with NSEERS and those who had never registered because they were afraid to register or were unaware of the program’s requirements.  DHS also places the burden on individuals to prove that their failure to comply with NSEERS was not willful, rather than presuming that it wasn’t willful. 

An individual negatively impacted by NSEERS and quoted in The NSEERS Effect, Mirwan Harahap said, “I registered under the program and was questioned by DHS regarding my overstay in the United States.  In February 2009, I was deported to Indonesia and it destroyed my family.  I was forced to leave behind my wife and U.S. born child, and return to a country to live without my loved ones.  Complying with the registration procedures and abiding by NSEERS, my life has been destroyed . . .” 

Aside from NSEERS’ present negative impacts, individuals are concerned that the data collected through the program remains available to DHS and potentially other government agencies. It is unclear how the data collected through the registration process has been and potentially still is being used.  Much of the data gathered includes very private and sensitive information, such as information related to individuals’ private financial matters, leaving individuals, their families and communities in a state of constant fear that the data gathered through the discriminatory program could be used against them in the future. 

The DHS April 2012 memo is binding on all DHS personnel and requires each component of DHS to implement guidance within 60 days of the memorandum’s issuance and implement related training—this component guidance is expected to be released this month. Rights Working Group was disappointed by the April 2012 memo and hopes that The NSEERS Effect will positively impact the issuance of further DHS guidance. It’s time that the government takes responsibility for its NSEERS failure, and fully dismantle the program’s regulatory framework, grant relief for all those negatively impacted, and discontinue using the data gathered through the discriminatory program.