The Department of Homeland Security is finally eliminating one of the worst vestiges of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 – the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) that required special travel procedures for those coming from more than two dozen countries that raised terrorism concerns.
NSEERS was an understandable, but nonetheless counterproductive, response to the fears of the post-9/11 environment. The United States quite rightly worried that follow on attacks were possible, but had little means for scrutinizing those who might be arriving from overseas to carry out such attacks. All 19 of the hijackers, after all, had originally entered the United States on lawful visas.
So the decision was made in the Bush administration Justice Department to create what amounted to little more than a crude profiling system – all males of certain ages from countries with significant Muslim populations would face intense scrutiny in secondary inspection upon arrival in the United States, would be required to re-register with the government at regular intervals, and could only leave the country through certain designated airports with exit procedures in place. Those already living in the United States who fit the profile were also required to register. The Bush administration dropped the registration requirements in 2004, but the other provisions remained.
NSEERS never demonstrated its effectiveness as a screening tool, according to the 9/11 Commission. And it hurt in other ways, angering friendly governments like Indonesia and Bangladesh who resented discriminatory treatment of their citizens, and driving away the skilled, educated immigrants who often become the best friends of the United States. Travel to the United States from these countries fell sharply.
Moreover, as former Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner and I argued in a 2009 Washington Post op-ed, “U.S. border screening procedures have improved tremendously in recent years, which further diminishes the value of the special-registration program.” These measures include the U.S.-Visit entry program, improvements in the terrorist watch lists, and CBP’s targeting systems for identifying suspicious travelers. Such targeted measures are both more effective, and less disruptive, than NSEERS.
The program would probably have been terminated sooner if not for the failed 2009 Christmas bombing attempt on the airliner over Detroit, though ironically the bomber came from Nigeria, a country not on the NSEERS list. But even late, it is a welcome move. While technically the program has not been killed, all the targeted countries will be removed from the NSEERS list, effectively terminating it.
DHS should close the circle, however, by dealing with many outstanding cases of lawful immigrants in the United States who failed to meet some requirement of the NSEERS system and as a result may face the threat of deportation rather than being able to acquire green cards or citizenship. NSEERS was an emergency measure, and an unfortunately ill-conceived one. It should be left in the past.