WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced Monday that it was ending a "special registration" program launched last year as an anti-terrorism measure that led to the arrests of hundreds of Middle Eastern men, mainly on immigration violations.
Initiated by the Justice Department after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the program is being shut down by the Department of Homeland Security in recognition of complaints that it has cast too broad a net. That agency inherited the campaign from the Justice Department.
Specifically, long-term visitors who have already registered under the program will not be required to register again after a year and 30 days, as originally mandated. Failure to re-register could have led to deportation.
Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, told reporters that anti-terrorism efforts in the future should be aimed at individuals, not general classes of people.
"We reviewed the process, and we feel by making these changes we can be more efficient in the use of resources," added Homeland Security spokesman William Strassberger. "That means, in essence, targeting individuals rather than categories of people."
Immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations praised the decision, but they said other problems remained to be addressed, including the fate of 13,799 individuals placed in deportation proceedings after coming forward to register with authorities. In Los Angeles, the program roiled the Iranian exile community a year ago, after hundreds of men and teenagers were arrested on immigration violations when they reported to authorities. Many of the exiles are foes of Iran's Islamic theocracy.
"There does seem to be a real interest in trying to arrive at a more reasonable policy," said Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. "This is unlike the experience we had with Justice before the creation of Homeland Security. They are calling us to talk."
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates policies that welcome immigrants, said: "Rather than using scarce enforcement resources in a scattershot program, [Homeland Security] appears to be changing course in a more constructive direction. They need to do more to address specific threats.... while transitioning away from sweeping policies that have proven ineffective, and, worse, counterproductive."
The program was known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. It applied to new visitors to the United States, as well as to men ages 16 and older here on extended visits from certain countries. The male long-term visitors who were required to register came from 25 countries in which Al Qaeda was known to be active. The men had to report to immigration authorities to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted.
The 25 countries were Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The registration requirement did not apply to naturalized citizens or green card holders from those countries.
Beginning Jan. 5, the government expects to phase in a new system for tracking all overseas visitors. Under that program, US-VISIT, authorities will take a digital photo and fingerprint of each of millions of foreigners who travel to the U.S. on tourist, business and student visas. Some individuals may be asked to undergo more extensive interviews when they arrive. People already registered under the old program will be required to notify authorities when they leave the country.
Under the old program, 93,741 arriving visitors had been registered at ports of entry.
An additional 83,519 male long-term visitors on the list of 25 countries came forward voluntarily. Of these, about 17% have been placed in deportation proceedings, mainly for overstaying a visa. Individuals facing deportation are usually able to post bond while their cases are decided.
Of 2,870 people detained at some point, only 23 remain in custody, according to Homeland Security statistics.
Strassberger said the program identified 11 individuals with "suspected terrorist ties," but he said he had no information on the disposition of those cases. An additional 143 had criminal records, which would bar them from remaining in the country.
"This was a vast project that revealed a big group of people with some minor technical problems, some hundred-plus criminals, and no terrorists," said Ibish, of the Arab American rights group. "It was implemented as a law enforcement policy run amok."