Toward the end of 2002, nearly two years after arriving in the U.S. with a student visa, Ammar Khawam took a day off from classes to visit Des Moines. It was about a two-hour drive from the University of Iowa, where he was working toward a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences. He made his way to the local immigration office, located in a glass-encased federal building downtown.
Khawam spent the rest of the day in the building. Immigration officials asked him questions, took his photo, and fingerprinted him. In between interviews, he sat silently, surrounded by others in the waiting room. No one was allowed to use their phones.
It was Khawam’s first brush with the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS. The system was implemented, symbolically, on September 11, 2002, under the Department of Justice, but it was soon transferred to the brand-new Department of Homeland Security. It consisted of two “special registration” programs: one that required foreign nationals from certain countries to check in with the government before entering and leaving the country, and another that obliged some foreigners living in the United States to report regularly to immigration officials.
When it was announced, the program applied to non-citizen, non-resident visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria. Eventually, the list of countries grew to 25—all of them Muslim-majority countries, except for North Korea. The domestic registration program applied only to men over the age of 16, but the entry and exit program applied to both men and women.
The domestic-registration portion only lasted a year and three months, and the remaining entry-and-exit part of the program was suspended in 2011, when DHS de-listed every country whose nationals were required to register. But de-listing the countries was equivalent to taking the ammunition out of a gun without getting rid of the weapon itself: The basic regulatory structure for the program still exists today, making it simple to re-list the countries and reinstate the program. Civil-rights organizations have been calling on the Obama administration to dismantle the program for years—but the push has gained urgency since Donald Trump started calling for bans, databases, and “extreme vetting” programs for Muslims.
The groups’ worries intensified when Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who advised Trump on immigration issues throughout his campaign, was photographed with the president-elect holding a document that outlined his “strategic plan” for DHS. The first recommendation listed was to “update and reintroduce the NSEERS screening and tracking system.” Kobach, who was a top advisor to Attorney General John Ashcroft after 9/11 and was one of the primary architects of NSEERS, wasn’t chosen as Trump’s DHS secretary—but he met again with Trump last week, keeping alive speculation that he might end up with a post in the new administration. He could not be reached for comment.
Trump’s plans for keeping track of Muslims in the U.S. are very unclear. When Politifact broke down a series of convoluted statements from the president-elect on databases and registries, what emerged was a general statement of support for “watch lists” and surveillance targeted at Muslims, and a vague openness toward tracking Muslims in a database.
I asked Trump’s transition team about its plans for implementing a Muslim registry, and was given a statement from Jason Miller, the team’s communications director, that’s been circulated to media before. It read, in its entirety:
President-elect Trump has never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion, and to imply otherwise is completely false. The national registry of foreign visitors from countries with high terrorism activity that was in place during the Bush and Obama Administrations gave intelligence and law enforcement communities additional tools to keep our country safe, but the President-elect plans on releasing his own vetting policies after he is sworn in.
Whether Trump plans to reinstate NSEERS, create a new program for tracking Muslims or immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, or pass on the idea altogether, understanding NSEERS is vital to making sense of the lasting legacy of Muslim surveillance since 9/11.
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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.”
When DHS phased out the domestic registration program, the agency said it was outdated compared to to newer systems like US-VISIT, a comprehensive program for tracking visitors to the U.S. from nearly every country, which is still in use today. The port-of-entry registration portion of NSEERS remained in place until 2011, until it, too, was retired in favor of newer border-security surveillance programs. They had rendered NSEERS “redundant, inefficient, and unnecessary,” the agency announced.
But a report from the DHS inspector general released in 2012 painted a more detailed portrait of the program’s shortcomings. Officials “struggled” with its “cumbersome design and frequent outages,” the report said, and many reported that the “system frequently did not function properly on some or all computers.” The interviews officials conducted were of “little value,” and the database they entered information into was “unreliable,” the report found. Technology problems resulted in hours-long waits at registration points, or prompted officials to grant ad-hoc waivers allowing registrants to skip the process. The program cost the government $10 million a year, according to the report.
The inspector general recommended dismantling the regulations behind NSEERS entirely rather than keeping it in suspended animation. “The ability of newer, more capable DHS data systems argues against ever utilizing the NSEERS data system again,” the report reads.
But DHS officials didn’t take the inspector general’s advice. In an official response, the assistant secretary for policy laid out the argument for keeping the program’s skeleton in place: “The Secretary has chosen to retain this regulatory framework to enable prompt action to require registration of a category or categories of aliens, if necessary, through rapid publication of a Federal Register Notice.”
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For people who experienced repeated questioning and burdensome reporting requirements under the NSEERS program, the prospect of its return—or the introduction of a new program like it—is chilling.
“Your passport is labeled and put into this strange red bag. Someone takes you into an office, and you just sit there. People are sitting there not talking. You can’t use your phone,” Khawam recalled of his experiences registering before and after travel. “If this was a universal practice, I wouldn’t be upset. But when it specifically applies to you, then it’s disturbing. It’s demeaning.”
He and Hamadmad became U.S. citizens two years ago, an opportunity that would have been denied them had they made any mistakes or missed any deadlines under NSEERS. Because they carry American passports now, if the program were restarted in the same form, they would no longer be affected. But the couple, who have three kids, are just as concerned.
“When you become an American citizen, you really worry,” said Hamadmad. “You care about the country you call home now. You don’t want to see this come back again.”
Both Khawam and Hamadmad voted for Hillary Clinton in November. Khawam cast his vote for Ohio Governor John Kasich in the Republican primary, and wishes he could have voted for him again in the general election. Hamadmad, on the other hand, voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. While neither was particularly excited about Clinton’s candidacy, they said they felt it was important to try and prevent Trump from winning the presidency. Hamadmad says she volunteered to canvass for Clinton’s campaign before the general election.
Ahead of Trump’s inauguration next month, civil-rights groups and Democrats in Congress are putting pressure on the the Obama administration to take apart what’s left of the NSEERS program. In November, ADC led 200 organizations—groups that represent a wide range of people, religions, and national backgrounds—in signing a letter to the president to ask him to dismantle the program’s regulatory framework. And earlier this month, more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter to the same effect, citing the “widespread and palpable fear” that NSEERS caused when it was implemented.
A number of technology companies have also come forward to say they would refuse to build a registry for tracking Muslims in the U.S. The companies include Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter, all of which hold vast amounts of data on their users and can likely guess with a high level of accuracy which are Muslim or are from Muslim-majority countries. But those companies probably won’t ever be asked to create such a system—such a task would more likely fall to a big government contractor like Deloitte or Booz Allen Hamilton.
As these groups try to get this administration to hobble the ability of the next one to implement a registry system, Hamadmad was thinking about the government she grew up under.
“Frankly, this only reminds me of the Syrian regime’s tactics, of the mukhabarat,” she said, using an Arabic word to refer to the country’s powerful intelligence services. “That’s what they do: They ask you questions to remind you that they watch you, that they see you all the time. It sometimes feels that this great country of ours is using the same tactics.”