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Obama dumps registry for some immigrant men

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Local human and civil rights leaders are praising the Obama administration’s announcement Thursday that it is officially scrapping a post-9/11 requirement for immigrant men and boys from predominantly Muslim countries to register with the federal government.

It’s a move, they said, that is a long time coming for what they call a failed registration system for Muslim immigrants. It has been widely derided by civil libertarians as an effort to profile people based on race and religion.

“It’s very overdue to put an end to such program that was based on nothing but selective approach and profiling of people,” said Imad Hamad, executive director of the American Human Rights Council. “For years, it was proven to be ineffective. It didn’t do anything to contribute to the safety and security of our nation.

“I urge President-elect Trump to take notice of this dismantling of this program,” Hamad said. “I’m sure our government can come up with a system that is balanced and fair and not based on religion, race or faith as its highlighter.”

The registration system started about a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, requiring males from a variety of mostly Middle Eastern countries to register with the federal government upon their arrival in the United States. Such people already in the country had to register with immigration authorities inside the United States.

Registration, which also applied to immigrants from North Korea, included fingerprints and photographs. People also were required to notify the government if they changed addresses.

President-elect Donald Trump has never publicly spoken about the program, but has made clear his desire to take a far tougher approach toward immigration than Obama.

The decision to end the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERs, comes amid growing international terror fears and Trump’s suggestions that he could ban Muslim immigrants from the United States. After a truck attack killed 12 in a Christmas market in Berlin this week, Trump told reporters, “You know my plans.”

The program’s elimination could make it more complicated for Trump’s administration to launch its own registration system for Muslims. A close adviser to Trump, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said last month he was in favor of launching an updated system for all foreigners from “high-risk” areas.

“It may make it more difficult for him to quickly reinstate something like NSEERs,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It doesn’t negate the chance that he would take the NSEERs program and try to repackage it and introduce it as public policy. If he attempts to do that, our organization will file the appropriate legal challenge.”

Tamyra Murray, founder of Michiganders for Immigration Control and Enforcement, said the Obama administration ending NSEERs was a token move.

“It’s not going to have any impact on Trump’s presidency at all or the future of us taking refugees in,” she said.

Murray, who is in favor of programs such as NSEERs, said she would like to see a Trump plan with sufficient manpower to handling screening.

“The bottom line is we don’t have enough people in place to screen all the refugees that come in in the first place,” she said.

Murray said that innocent refugees should have no problems adhering to a registration process. She calls reports of increased scrutiny “hype.”

“I don’t think people get hassled,” she said. “There are so many protections in place against racial profiling. If it does happen, it’s so isolated. Those people are more protected than Americans are.”

Noel Saleh, an Ann Arbor-based immigration attorney who also is on the state board for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he has had clients who were unlawfully detained during NSEERs processing. He said he also had family visiting from Lebanon and Palestine who were affected by the scrutiny.

“This is a great success,” said Saleh of the program’s dismantling by Obama. “We don’t know how long it’s going to last. It shouldn’t have taken fear of President Trump to actually rescind it. ... It was just a bad idea from the beginning to classify people into search category based on religion or ethnicity.”

The administration will publish its decision in the Federal Register on Friday.

The program is “not only obsolete,” said Neema Hakim, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, “its use would divert limited personnel and resources from more effective measures.”

Rula Aoun, director of the Arab American Civil Rights League, said the program’s elimination was discussed among local attorneys.

“It was something we were all waiting for and pleading for and definitely necessary,” she said. “If something isn’t active and not in use, it should not be on the books. If something has failed, it should be revoked. That’s good sound policy.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has opposed the program since its inception, described it as a “failed counter-terrorism tool and massive profiling program that didn’t yield a single terrorism conviction in nearly a decade.”

“With this action, the U.S. is on the right path to protect Muslim and Arab immigrants from discrimination,” said Joanne Lin, the organization’s senior legislative counsel.

The program never prohibited travel for men and boys from the more than 20 affected countries, including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the Obama administration abandoned the system in April 2011, it said a newer data collection program would be sufficient to collect biometric information for all foreigners coming into the country. At the time, more than 80,000 foreigners were registered.

Associated Press contributed.