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NSEERS and 'special registration' are gone, but long-term effects continue

Photo by fazen/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Last spring, Homeland Security announced that it was officially ending what was perhaps the most controversial immigration-national security program implemented in the immediate wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, focused on non-citizen men from 25 Muslim-majority countries with the goal of collecting their fingerprints, photographs, and monitoring their whereabouts. 

In the beginning, those who met the criteria had to participate in a "special registration" that required reporting to immigration officials for questioning, some having to travel long distances to do so. This provision was suspended in 2003 amid much public and political criticism. But of the 83,519 men interviewed under special registration between September 2002 and September 2003, according to Homeland Security statistics, 13,799 landed in deportation proceedings.

With the entire program now gone, NSEERS-related deportation cases that remain in the system have been the focus of renewed attention lately, especially as the Obama administration begins reviewing some 300,000 deportation cases to screen out "low-priority" immigrants who may qualify to stay. KPCC intern Yasmin Nouh highlights one of these:

Hadi Syed Zaidi is an aspiring student of industrial design and one of nearly 84,000 registrants with the now-defunct National Security Exit and Entry Registration System, known as NSEERS.

Zaidi, who was born in Pakistan and arrived in the U.S. at age four, registered with NSEERS after his 16th birthday in early 2003. Like most registrants, he had no terrorist ties. But Zaidi and his family had overstayed their visas.

He, his father, and his older brother, all of whom registered, were placed in deportation proceedings. His father was eventually able to stay legally; his brother's deportation order remains outstanding. Zaidi faced imminent removal until earlier this month, when he was released from detention with orders to check in regularly with immigration officials. Last week he was granted a temporary stay of removal, although he can still be taken into custody.

Zaidi’s case is not uncommon. According to DHS, out of the nearly 84,000 registrants with NSEERS, around 14,000 were ordered deported and almost 3,000 were detained. But though the program has since been terminated, deportation cases initiated under NSEERS remain open.

It’s typical for cases like Hadi’s to continue even if they were initiated under the NSEERS program, says Anoop Prasad, an immigration attorney at the Asian Law Caucus.

"There have been no steps to rescind the removal orders that were issued under NSEERS," Prasad said. "The long-term effects are that you still have thousands and thousands who have either been deported or are facing bars. Once you’ve been ordered deported, it’s very difficult to gain status to live in the United States and so they’re left in a limbo status. They can’t work or marry a U.S. citizen or have children in the U.S."

The long-defunct special registration provision of NSEERS "continues to cause fear in the Muslim community even a decade later," Prasad said.

This was at the core of a report released last May by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and New York University School of Law, which used case studies to illustrate the long-term effects of NSEERS, suggesting that Muslims continue to be targets of discriminatory immigration practices as a result of the program's legacy. From the report:

Most of those charged with ordinary immigration violations and detained by ICE are provided a bond hearing and released after demonstrating that they are not a danger, threat to national security, or flight risk. However, lawyers report a recurring phenomenon in which Muslim non-citizens charged with minor immigration violations are detained in situations in which it is otherwise customary to release individuals.

Last June, the Obama administration welcomed what's sometimes referred to as the Morton Memorandum, issued by John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The memo allows immigration officials to cancel deportation proceedings for an undocumented immigrant classified as a "low priority" for removal. Some factors that qualify someone as low-priority are if he or she entered the U.S. at a young age, attended school in the U.S., has a history of military service, has immediate family living in the U.S. or is of the elderly or the ill.

Attorney Prasad says Zaidi meets the conditions outlined the memo. Zaidi’s mother, Aida Zaidi, says the family plans to reopen his appeal in hopes that he can stay permanently.

“He’s entitled to a green card," Zaidi said of her son. "His grandmother is a U.S. citizen. His younger brother is a U.S. born citizen. The first cousin is a U.S. Marine. His youngest uncle is a U.S. Army veteran. My first cousin is in the U.S. Air Force. If they just did more background checking, they will see that we have far more ties here than in Pakistan.”