By Bill Parry
Following intense pressure from civil and human rights organizations and New York state’s attorney general, the Obama administration Thursday moved to dismantle a dormant national registry program that was once used to track mostly Muslim and Arab men. Created by the Bush administration following the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System was established to monitor travelers from a list of countries, almost all of them Muslim.
While President Obama suspended the program in 2011 by removing all 25 countries from its list, critics feared the regulatory structure remained intact and could be used by the incoming Trump administration to revive the registry.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called on Obama to dismantle the NSEERS program, writing that it did not reduce terrorist activity, undermined trust in law enforcement and instilled fear in some communities.
“We can’t risk giving President-elect Trump the tools to create an unconstitutional religious registry,” Schneiderman said in a separate statement. On Thursday morning, the Department of Homeland Security ended the program “with an immediate effective date,” according to a DHS spokesman.
“This is a win for civil rights and for smart, effective law enforcement as well as for the strong coalition of advocacy organizations and others who fought to dismantle this discriminatory tool,” Schneiderman said in a statement. My office will continue (to) do everything it can to protect the rights of all New Yorkers, and ensure equal justice under the law for all, regardless of religion or national origin.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio commended the Obama administration’s decision to dismantle NSEERs.
“The program was a failed counterterrorism tool, was highly discriminatory and led to widespread fear and needless dislocation of families across the United States,” de Blasio said. “New York City is proudly home to one of the largest Muslin communities in the country. If NSEERS were reinstated, roughly 28,000 New Yorkers would likely be required to register, with devastating consequences for immigrant families and other members of our community who would face greater fear, uncertainty and exclusion. The Department of Homeland Security took important steps to end the program in 2011 and now the president will finish the job.”
DRUM, the Jackson Heights-based organization that led low-income Muslims and South Asian communities organizing against NSEERS in 2002, delivered a petition with over 350,000 signatures last week, demanding the Obama administration rescind the program before the Trump inauguration.
“The NSEERS program forced over 83,000 people to register, over 13,000 were put in deportations, and yet zero number of people were found to have any connection to violent activities,” DRUM Director of Strategy Roksana Mun said. “What these numbers don’t show are the extent of devastation and disruption in the lives that were left behind. What these numbers do show is a program that used egregious racial and religious profiling to engage in mass deportations of entire communities.”
DRUM member Mohammad Jafar Alam, a survivor of the original NSEERS program in 2003, was one of the individuals from groups across the country to deliver the petition to the Department of Justice on Dec. 12.
“I know exactly what a program like NSEERS does to a person and their family. The extreme mental, emotional distress, the financial problems, the pressures on a family and the isolation that happens is a punishment not for just one person, but everyone involved,” he said. “We commend the Obama administration for responding to our call and ending this program.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr