Union Tribune

April 26, 2003

Entry-Exit program might end
Foreign visitors required to register after Sept. 11 attacks


and Leonel Sanchez

WASHINGTON The Bush administration may be ready to end a controversial registration program that has required tens of thousands of foreign visitors from the Middle East and Asia to report to federal immigration offices to be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed, White House officials said yesterday.

The program targets males age 16 and older who are living in the United States and whose homelands have been linked in some way to terrorists.

The fourth and probably last round of domestic registrations ended yesterday, targeting males from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and Kuwait. The most controversial round was the first, which ended in mid-December, when immigration officers detained more than 500 men when they came to register. Most of the detentions were in Southern California, including 22 in San Diego.

Officials said Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge may order the end of the domestic component of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System because he believes it has accomplished its mission to ferret out potential national security problems.

Immigration advocates have complained that the program has discriminated against foreigners, particularly Middle Easterners. They also insist that it is ineffective, because terrorists are unlikely to come forward and because it discourages Muslims and Arabs from cooperating with U.S. authorities in the war against terrorism. "There's a lot of wounded communities, a lot of hurt feelings," said Ali Golchin, a spokesman for the San Diego Coalition for Civil and Human Rights, which monitored the registrations at the Federal Building.

Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, said the program did little to prevent terrorism.

"From the beginning we have maintained that calling people in to register and be interrogated is the wrong approach to thwarting terrorism," she said.

The entry-exit program's other key component which requires certain foreign visitors to register when they arrive in the United States will continue.

Visitors from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Syria must still register as they arrive at ports of entry and report 30 days later to an immigration office. The Department of Homeland Security may add other countries to that list based on new intelligence, San Diego spokeswoman Lauren Mack said.

The entry-exit program tracks foreigners who enter the country on tourist, business and student visas and was set up in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. All the hijackers entered the country legally on temporary U.S. visas.

Since the national security crackdown began last fall, more than 130,000 immigrants and foreign visitors from 25 countries mainly in the Middle East have been registered through the domestic program or before they were admitted into the United States at ports of entry. Of those, 11,000 were referred to investigators because of a violation on their record. More than 2,300 were detained, including more than 800 suspected criminals and deportable convicts. About 200 remain in custody, Mack said.

The domestic program registers foreign visitors who were in the country before the government began the special registrations at airports and border crossings.

For months, the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued public bulletins requiring individuals from certain countries to report to their nearest INS office for registration.

Muslim and Arab communities were outraged when immigration officers began arresting individuals who went to register. Officials said later that most of those detained had overstayed their visas but had already applied for permanent residency.

Mack said the system improved after the first round because of increased outreach to the communities affected, extended deadlines and better coordination. The last three rounds of registrations went off with few incidents.

Yesterday, administration officials described the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System as a success, saying it was a preventive strike against terrorism.

"The proof is in the pudding. We've gotten 11 suspected terrorists; at least 725 people wanted on criminal charges, another 102 criminal violators. These aren't little puny offenses they included convicted child molesters and drug violators," a Justice Department official said.

Referring to the allegations of discrimination, the official said, "These were countries where al-Qaeda had a presence."

Groups seeking to restrict immigration want the government to continue tracking foreign visitors.

"They said from the very beginning that special registration was the first step toward a broader entry-exit tracking system," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to limit immigration. "I hope that is still true."

Congress has ordered a comprehensive system to track all foreigners by 2005.

Leonel Sanchez: (619) 542-4568; leonel.sanchez@uniontrib.com