Obama nixes visitor registry before Trump takes office

Obama nixes visitor registry before Trump takes office
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The Obama administration said Thursday it will formally do away with a dormant travel registry program that tracked visitors from many Muslim-majority countries — a program some surrogates of President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpReturn hope to the Middle East by returning to the Iran Deal Government shutdowns tend to increase government spending 'Full Frontal' gives six-bedroom house to group that works with detained immigrants MORE have proposed reinstating.

The move is symbolic — the controversial program was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but has not been in use since 2011. 

But it comes as Trump continues to float the possibility of some kind of registry to track potential terrorists in the U.S. He has in the past proposed a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants and a religion-based registry; more recently, he has said he would bar people from countries with a history of Islamist extremism from entering the U.S.

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Policy experts have said the now-dismantled National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) was the most likely avenue for Trump to make his registry proposals a reality.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who at one point was thought to be a candidate to lead Trump's Department of Homeland Security (DHS), accidentally exposed last month what appeared to be plans to reinstate the program.

The original NSEERS created under the George W. Bush administration required noncitizen visa holders from 25 countries to register when they entered the U.S. and check in regularly with immigration officials. All but one of the nations on the list were majority-Muslim.

The program registered more than 80,000 boys and men and placed more than 13,000 in removal proceedings. 

Civil liberties groups lambasted NSEERS as discriminatory and President Obama suspended the program in 2011, after it failed to produce a single terrorism conviction.

“DHS ceased use of NSEERS more than five years ago, after it was determined the program was redundant, inefficient and provided no increase in security,” the agency said in a statement Thursday. “The intervening years have shown that NSEERS is not only obsolete, but that its use would divert limited personnel and resources from more effective measures.”

Administration officials have long characterized the program as inefficient and less effective than more recent automated systems which are better equipped to flag worrisome patterns.

A 2012 DHS Inspector General report found that the newer automated systems allowed for enhanced collection of biometric information and more informed targeting and data analysis.

Moreover, under NSEERS, Customs and Border Patrol officials had to input information manually — leading to complaints that it was a drain on resources, especially at busy entry points.

But although the program was suspended five years ago, the federal regulations underpinning it remained in place until this week. Those rules traced their origins to the first Gulf War, when some nonimmigrant travelers from Iraq and Kuwait were required to register and provide fingerprints.

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers, as well as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had petitioned the administration to unravel the regulatory framework that allowed for NSEERS.

“We can't risk giving President-elect Trump the tools to create an unconstitutional religious registry,” Schneiderman said Wednesday.

"We can never allow our nation to return to the dark days of Japanese internment. By finally dismantling the NSEERS program now, President Obama can make a repeat of that horror significantly more difficult.”

The Dec. 1 letter from House members does not mention Trump by name. Instead, the signers wrote, “We stand together in opposition to programs that would target people based on their religion, race, ethnicity or national origin.”

The move comes amidst a last-gasp push from Obama’s White House to shore up certain environmental and immigration policies that Democrats worry the president-elect will try to do away with when he takes office on Jan. 20.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee praised the move, calling the registry a "failed program rooted in discriminatory profiling." 

The NSEERS rule change will take effect immediately after it is published in the Federal Register on Friday.