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Registration, Reorganization Redux

by Steven D. Heller, Esq.

A nation in a time of war calls for registration of non-citizens, detention of perceived subversives, and the reorganization of the bureaucracy charged with administering immigration laws. Sound familiar? It's not America 2003; it's America 1940. And, if past truly is prelude, there may be some cause for hope amid the general immigration gloom.

In 1940 Congress passed the Alien Registration Act that is the foundation for the current Special Registration regulation that has become the bane of Arab and Muslim (and, presumably, North Korean) men. It is also the foundation for the overall alien registration system that gives us Alien Registration Numbers.

When originally enacted, the Alien Registration Act of 1940 required all aliens (regardless of status) to register by reporting to their local post office for fingerprinting and submission of biographical data. Millions of aliens registered with the program, which continued throughout World War II. Although it was incorporated into the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the practice of registering non-immigrants ceased, largely as a reflection of reciprocal treatment by foreign governments of American visitors.

The Alien Registration Act of 1940 also made members of certain criminal and subversive groups subject to deportation, and created voluntary departure.

The same year of the Registration Act President Roosevelt's Reorganization Plan Number V transferred the INS from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice. The reason? National security.

There were also repeated initiatives broadening the authority of consular officers and immigration officials to restrict entry into the US or departure from it. And let's not forget the internment camps.

So where is the silver lining?

In 1942, the government recognized an urgent need for foreign labor. Through the Act of April 29, 1943 Congress authorized importation of temporary agricultural laborers to the United States from North, South, and Central America for agricultural work (The program was extended through 1947, then served as the legal basis of the Mexican "Bracero Program," which lasted through 1964). The Act of February 14, 1944 provided for the importation of temporary workers from countries in the Western Hemisphere for employment in industries and services essential to the war effort.

One of the saddest chapters in US immigration history also came to an end at this time when Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Subsequent measures tempered other nationality-based discriminatory measures (e.g. allowing admission and naturalization of natives of India and the Philippines). Granted, both of these measures still operated under the cloud of nationality quotas, but they signaled a growing enlightenment in immigration legislation.

This is my hope for today. Reorganizing the INS in 1940 made sense and enabled the agency to respond to 60 years of expansion in immigration services. Hopefully, the move to DHS will enable BCIS and BICE to do likewise. Special Registration and tighter "war-time" restrictions test our nation's adherence to core principles of fairness and due process'and the immigration agencies' abilities to manage an ever-increasing range of duties with notoriously limited resources. If history repeats itself, Congress should soon endeavor to correct some of the ills that have plagued immigration law; they can start by fixing IIRIRA and enabling proper law enforcement measures to target security threats, rather than use overly broad, discriminatory measures like call-in registration to target nationalities.

With the war now under way, and administration promises to detain asylum seekers from countries that host Al Qaeda (which is probably everywhere), reform may seem a long way off, but the one constant in US immigration law throughout the years is the promise of change.

About The Author

Steven D. Heller, Esq. is an immigration attorney in New York. He is co-author of Citizenship for Dummies, to be published later this year by Wiley Publishers.

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