Obama should finish what he started and end NSEERS

In 2011, the Obama administration halted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a program that since 2002 had imposed special, onerous requirements on lawful visitors to the U.S. from a large group of majority Muslim countries. In the years since, NSEERS has remained unused, but is technically still on the books. Now the Trump administration is poised to reactivate it. This is a terrible idea, substituting individualized, intelligence-driven, counter-terrorism screening and response for a discriminatory and generalized fear of Muslims that does nothing to advance security. The Obama administration can and should do what it can to prevent NSEERS’ restoration by revoking it in its entirety.

Under NSEERS, between 2002 and 2011, hundreds of thousands of men, many of them long-time U.S. residents, had to run a gauntlet of special border and immigration check-ins and interviews based solely on their country of origin. Frequently, the instructions they were given were inconsistent and confusing, and some NSEERS registrants who lived or worked near the Canadian border had to report in multiple times per week because of their frequent border crossings. Small errors in compliance could lead to life-changing penalties and deportations. NSEERS treated citizenship from majority-Muslim countries as suspicious; that felt like a slap in the face for many American Muslims. And NSEERS damaged U.S. relations with countries whose partnership we need, when their leaders were likewise offended by the aspersions the program cast.

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To the extent that NSEERS ever enhanced our security, the program is no longer necessary.  Since NSEERS was created, DHS has ramped up security for all foreign visitors to the United States, requiring fingerprints, interviews, and repeated vetting against intelligence databases for everyone; more intensive border interviews for travelers based on particular risk factors; and evidence and intelligence based investigations. New international agreements allow U.S. law enforcement officers to operate abroad, allowing them to question or prevent travelers from boarding planes bound for the U.S.  When NSEERS remained in place, its special, discriminatory procedures not only inconvenienced visitors, they also took border and immigration officers away from more focused and more effective work.

That’s why in 2011 the Obama Administration shut down NSEERS, by zeroing out the list of target countries. Shelving NSEERS enhanced civil rights and security. In an abundance of caution, however, DHS declined in 2011 to rescind the NSEERS regulation altogether; leaving the structure of the program in storage, available to be deployed if the need arose. Five years of experience demonstrates that the need will not arise; there are abundant and more effective security tools that are used to screen and assess visitors from all countries, not just majority-Muslim countries. We don’t have to sacrifice our antidiscrimination commitments to improve security. In this instance, equality and security are partners, not competitors.

In its final weeks, the Obama administration should finish what it started, and revoke the NSEERS regulation in its entirety. There’s still time to get this done, if the administration acts immediately.  As has been reported, some of President-elect Trump’s advisors are advocating for the revival of NSEERS. The revival of this program will only diminish security by diverting resources and the attention of agents away from investigations in favor of conducting redundant and unnecessary interviews.  These views are shared by career special agents who recognize that the program serves only as a distraction and civil rights advocates who recognize the affront to equality a revived NSEERS will constitute. The current administration obviously cannot prevent their successors from making this mistake—but it should do what it can to end the NSEERS chapter, and make the Trump administration start from a blank page.

Margo Schlanger is the Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and the former DHS Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties; John Sandweg is a Partner at Frontier Solutions and the former DHS Acting General Counsel and former Acting ICE Director.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.