Implemented after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it was one of the most controversial national security programs established during that time. The idea was to collect information, fingerprints, and photographs of certain individuals entering and living in the United States, and to monitor their whereabouts. Its primary focus was on men from Muslim-majority countries.
Most contested by its critics was a "special registration" provision that required non-citizens already present in the United States to report to immigration officials for questioning. While this portion of NSEERS was suspended at the end of 2003, the rest of the program remained in effect until its termination was announced at end of April. From the MPI paper:
In its recent announcement terminating the program, DHS cited the redundancy of the current manifestation of NSEERS, stating that, as a result of improved intelligence programs and better methods of tracking immigrant visa overstays, NSEERS was no longer needed to protect national security. And in reference to the program's turbulent past and controversy over profiling based on nationality and religion, DHS stated that it will now "seek to identify individuals and actions that pose specific threats, rather than focusing on more general designations of groups of individuals, such as country of origin."
In a striking coincidence, the announcement to terminate the NSEERS program came less than a week before the death of Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It's unclear as to whether the program would have been terminated in the aftermath of his death, which has increased anxiety about terrorist retaliation against the United States.
Critics of NSEERS, which was challenged in court, blasted the program as an infringement on the civil rights of Muslim immigrants, some of whom wound up detained and in deportation proceedings as a result. The MPI paper cited Homeland Security statistics:
According to DHS, between September 2002 and the end of September 2003 (nearly the full course of the special registration component of the NSEERS program), 83,519 individuals participated in special registration interviews at immigration offices nationwide. As a result of these interviews, 13,799 individuals were placed in removal proceedings.
NSEERS was just one of many changes to the U.S. immigration system and its policies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, among them the creation of the Homeland Security department, a federal effort to seek out immigrants with criminal records that has led to programs like Secure Communities, and legislation leading to tighter border security.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and New York University School of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice recently released a briefing paper alleging that Muslims continue to be targets of discriminatory immigration practices.