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Khawam and his wife, Sumaya Hamadmad, who are Syrian Muslims, learned about their obligations under the NSEERS program from the University of Iowa’s office for international students. (Hamadmad was also studying for a Ph.D.—hers in pharmacology—at the university.) The pair was fortunate to have a system in place that notified them.
For many who would be affected, the program—which was announced via an entry in the Federal Register, the government’s official newspaper—snuck up with little warning. Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, the director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Penn State Law, says the government did a poor job of communicating details about how to comply with the program. For the most part, she said, mosques, community organizations, and individuals’ immigration lawyers stepped in to fill the part.
The domestic registration program gave foreign nationals a deadline by which they had to present themselves at an immigration office. Because Syria was in the very first wave of countries, Khawam had to register by December 16, 2002, just over three months after the system was implemented. (The deadline was later extended to February 7, 2003 for that group and the next, which included another 13 countries.)
The information gathered from domestic registrants—photographs, fingerprints, and information from detailed interviews—was used to track them as they moved around the country. The program required people to re-register every year, and let immigrations officials know within ten days every time they moved addresses, got a new job, or started to study at a new educational institution.
DHS suspended the domestic registration program in December 2003, more than a year after it had begun. By that point, according to a fact sheet released by the agency, NSEERS had garnered more than 83,500 domestic registrations, and 93,741 people had registered at ports of entry. The information gathered from registrants appears to have been transferred to newer DHS surveillance programs, but it’s not clear how it’s been used since the end of the NSEERS program, and a spokesperson for DHS did not comment on that.
By December 2003, nearly 13,800 people had been placed in deportation proceedings because of the program—but, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the program did not help the government open a single terrorist-related criminal case. The deportations broke apart families, representatives for the advocacy organizations said, and their effects reverberated far beyond the end of the domestic registration program.
If they weren’t deported, people who didn’t register—either because they didn’t understand their obligations under the program, missed an important deadline, or willfully ignored the program’s requirements—were barred from applying for U.S. residency or citizenship. “We have individuals still to this day who are unable to adjust their status,” said Abed Ayoub, the ADC’s legal and policy director. “And once [the government] delisted the countries, nothing was done to address the residual effects.”