ACLU Says New Border Fingerprinting System Likely To Sow Confusion, Tracking of Arab and Muslims Based on National Origin Will Continue

January 5, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today warned that a new immigrant tracking program, known as US VISIT, can only increase confusion among immigrants to the United States in terms of when, where and how they have to register with the government, and will do nothing to end discriminatory tracking of Arabs and Muslims based on national origin and religion.

The program that was launched today is officially called the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology. It has been billed – inaccurately – as a replacement for the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, also known as NSEERS or special registration, which was roundly derided for its blatantly prejudicial design and shoddy implementation.

“Contrary to assertions by the Homeland Security Department, the US VISIT program is an addition to — not a substitute for — the notorious special registration program that singled out Arab and Muslim men because of their national origin and that continues to subject them to special and confusing requirements,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Only one part of the special registration program — the part that requires re-registration at local immigration offices — was suspended last year. But, Arab and Muslim men are still subject to different requirements than other visitors.”

After NSEERS was instituted in the fall of 2002, the administration deflected criticisms that the program amounted to a discriminatory dragnet first by claiming that it was simply a first step toward implementing a comprehensive entry-exit system demanded by Congress and then by announcing that it would replace NSEERS with US VISIT. But, in fact, the government is quietly continuing NSEERS along with its efforts to deport nearly 14,000 predominantly Arab and Muslim men and boys who reported for registration under NSEERS.

A little-known provision applicable only to NSEERS registrants also sharply limits the ports allowed for their departure from the US and requires in-person “exit” registration with a designated immigration officer at an often obscure location. Those who unwittingly fail to satisfy the departure requirements will be deemed in violation of the law and may face the penalty of being denied permission to return to the US.

“By announcing this program while maintaining the confusing and discriminatory NSEERS requirements, the government is continuing to trap unwary immigrants who have made every effort to comply with the law and who have not been provided meaningful and accurate information about their obligations,” said Robin Goldfaden, staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

In addition to sowing confusion among immigrants about when, where and how they should register with the government when entering or exiting the country, the US VISIT program’s privacy policy – only made public today – contains a number of very serious flaws, including a overly long retention policy.

“The US VISIT program is also a large privacy violation waiting to happen, with records garnered under the program likely retained even after you’ve become a citizen, and a provision permitting their sharing with foreign governments,” Edgar added.

In addition to confusion and bias, the program is also highly questionable from a national security standpoint, the ACLU said. In addition to excluding certain countries’ visitors from its requirements, US VISIT still lacks an effective mechanism for tracking departures. And those seeking to avoid US VISIT altogether can simply enter the country through a port that does not yet have the system in place.

Additionally, there is talk of employing notoriously inaccurate facial recognition technology for US VISIT, which would likely result in hundreds of false national security alarms as well-meaning visitors are mistakenly identified as terrorists.

“Nobody is arguing with the principle of monitoring who enters and exits the country, but there are ways to do it, and ways not to do it,” Edgar said. “So far, we haven’t even come up with an effective system, let alone one that doesn’t treat every Arab and Muslim, even every visitor, as a potential terrorist.”

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