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Special Registration - A Current Look On Its Implementation

by Christine Flowers

Recently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has implemented a program whereby nationals of certain specific countries are required to present themselves to local INS offices throughout the United States in order to be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed concerning their presence in this country. These measures are aimed at enhancing the nation's security by creating a database which will assist the government in identifying and isolating likely terrorists. The program, known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) or more simply, "Special Registration" mandates that all male citizens over the age of 16 who are nationals or citizens of 20 countries listed in the Federal Register at 67 Fed. Reg. 70525 and 67 Fed. Reg. 67765 be 'registered' with the INS prior to three specific dates, depending upon the alien's country of origin. Alien national or citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Libya who were born on or before November 15, 1986 and who were last admitted to the United States as non-immigrants on or before September 10, 2002 were required to register by December 16, 2002. Aliens from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen must register with the INS by January 10, 2002 if they were born before December 2, 1986 and entered the United States as non-immigrants prior to September 30, 2002. Finally, citizens of either Pakistan or Saudi Arabia who were born on or before January 13, 1987 and who last entered the United States as non-immigrants prior to September 30, 2002 must register by February 21, 2003. Failure to register with the INS will most likely result in that alien's immediate deportability and/or the denial of any immigration benefit such as adjustment of status to permanent residence or asylum.

While most people, including the majority of immigration practitioners, see the utility in adopting measures to track the location of alien nationals in this country, and while many would even support a system which targets individuals from countries with suspect profiles, the manner in which NSEERS has been implemented has been a cause for great concern among civil libertarians and certain minority groups. In the past several weeks, there have been reports of widespread confusion, incompetence, and even misfeasance on the part of those individuals charged with carrying out the registration requirements. In Arlington, Virginia, for example, individuals who attempted to register before the deadline were turned away without explanation, and told to come back after December 16th, which would have rendered them non-compliant and therefore deportable. In Boston and Baltimore, attorneys were either barred from accompanying their clients, or prevented from speaking; these policies have since been revised to allow for full representation. In Cincinnati, an individual who was the beneficiary of a pending family-based petition was summarily removed, and another person who had filed for adjustment of status was taken into custody and denied bond. The most egregious conduct has occurred in California, where mass arrests of registrants are being reported, with numbers well into the hundreds. Many of those arrested and detained were in lawful status and had filed for their permanent residence. The situation in California contradicts official reports that only those aliens who are out of status are likely to be detained.

Locally in Philadelphia, we have been relatively fortunate. Unlike California, there have been few reports of indiscriminate detention, and the interviews have been conducted in a respectful and efficient manner. However, there have been exceptions to the rule. One of our office's clients, a citizen of Iran, was detained for five hours and told that he would be deported immediately, even though he was the beneficiary of a pending application for an employment-based 'green card.' As the day wore on, he was eventually informed by an officer that he was 'lucky' because it was late in the afternoon, and they were releasing him on his own recognizance. One wonders how many applicants who were unfortunate enough to be processed earlier in the day were accorded the same magnanimous treatment. Additionally, many prospective registrants were discouraged from appearing at the INS offices on Callowhill Street when it was reported that a Moroccan national with a pending application for benefits was taken into custody and held for further processing. This individual had complied with regulations which allegedly protected those aliens who had filed for adjustment under Section 245(i) and paid the $1,000.00 penalty fee. The INS in Philadelphia is apparently taking the position that a pending application for adjustment does not, in and of itself, prevent an alien from being placed into deportation proceedings.

Farther north on I-95, officials at the Newark office have indicated that they will handle individuals on a case-by-case basis, but have warned that the INS WILL deport an alien if he or she fails to register.

What is most troubling about the foregoing incidents, aside from the arbitrary nature of the adjudications, is the fact that the aliens who present themselves for registration are the ones who are least likely to be engaged in terrorist activity. Most of those who have sought to register are either applicants for an immigration benefit or simple visa violators such as overstays who have no criminal background, and who are in the process of applying for some sort of relief under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Many of these individuals have resided in this country for many years, and have developed significant, long-standing family and societal ties. For example, the Iranian client I mentioned earlier is the father of a fifteen year old US citizen, the father of a lawful non-immigrant student, and has not been in his native country for the past twenty years. As a member of the Bahai religion, it is extremely likely that he will be persecuted if forced to return home. Notwithstanding the foregoing, he voluntarily presented himself to the local INS office, fully aware of the consequences yet desirous of complying with his adopted country's mandate.

As it is currently designed and implemented, the registration policies do not advance their avowed goal, i.e. the promotion and enhancement of national security. There is a tenuous relationship between the targeted groups (non-immigrant male visitors over the age of 16) and likely terrorists. For example, several of the participants in the terror attacks on 9/11 were lawful permanent residents, and at least one naturalized citizen has been connected to Al Quaeda. However, both permanent residents and citizens are exempt from the registration requirement. Women are also exempt, and yet there is increasing evidence that females are almost as likely to be involved in terrorist activity as their male counterparts. Furthermore, the registration program is voluntary in nature, leading to the conclusion that those who are actually involved in subversive activity will not make themselves available for fingerprinting, photographing and questioning by the authorities.

On December 23, 2002, Senators Feingold and Kennedy, along with Representative John Conyers sent a letter to the Department of Justice stating in pertinent part as follows:

We have grave doubts about whether the INS's implementation of NSEERS has struck the proper balance between securing our borders on the one hand and respecting the civil liberties of foreign students, business people and visitors who have come to our national legally on the other. Rather, this special registration program appears to be a component of a second wave of roundups and detentions of Arab and Muslim males disguised as a perfunctory registration requirement.

Our country has been the victim of a ruthless act of terror, perpetrated by individuals who had no respect for the power and majesty of the United States Constitution and the benefits which it bestows upon her citizens. Unfortunately, many of those who are attempting to comply with this country's laws by making themselves available for voluntary registration are being denied even the most minimum level of due process, in violation of the letter and spirit of the laws. Let us hope that those who have been charged with implementing NSEERS will be more consistent in their actions, less arbitrary in their adjudications, and fully cognizant of the magnitude of their responsibility, to both the registrants, and to the Constitution.

About The Author

Christine Flowers is employed by Joseph M. Rollo and Associates, P.C. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The firm provides a complete range of immigration services and specializes in family and employment-based petitions, asylum and deportation. Ms. Flowers is currently co-chair of the asylum liaison committee for the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and has written and lectured frequently on immigration in the Philadelphia area. She is a 1983 graduate of Bryn Mawr College and a 1987 graduate of Villanova Law School. The firm can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.