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Dept. of Homeland Security ends biased and ineffective immigrant registration & tracking system

On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made a long overdue announcement indefinitely suspending the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a framework that has been fraught with controversy and inefficiency since it was launched in the wake of 9/11. Several advocacy organizations have welcomed the move but have also called for the DHS to repair the damage that NSEERS has done over the years.

Over the past six years, the NSEERS required individuals from primarily Arab countries to register with the government on arrival and departure from the United States. These countries included Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Individuals who fell under the critera were required to undergo around 30 minutes of additional inspection at a port of entry if  entering the U.S on nonimmigrant visas. Visitors had to register again when exiting the country. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) justified the existence of the system stating that it was implemented “to keep track of those entering and leaving our country in order to safeguard U.S. citizens and America’s borders.”

The DHS and ICE have been criticized for their overt racial profiling of Arab visitors or those who appear Arab in an effort to preserve national security. The almost exclusive focus on visitors from the Arab countries showed that an institutional typecast was established, a move that received much flak from advocacy groups. The NSEERS impacted a lot of innocent people . In 2003, Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, a refugee from Iraq was traveling on an Amtrak train from Seattle to Washington, DC to start a new job at an Arabic-language newspaper. While the train had stopped for a 30-minute break in Havre, Montana, Habeeb was singled out by two border patrol agents and then subsequently interrogated, arrested, imprisoned and set up for deportation back to Iraq. This was all because Habeeb hadn’t registered with the NSEERS even though his status didn’t require him to do so. In March 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Habeeb, seeking compensation and damages for his losses and suffering as a result of the erroneous arrest and imprisonment. Finally, in June 2007, the U.S. government apologized to Habeeb for their misconduct and offered compensation. The message from U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan for the Western District of Washington giving Habeeb a formal statement said-

The United States of America acknowledges that, by not registering under NSEERS, you did nothing wrong. The United States of America regrets the mistake.

In what seems like an extension of their acceptance that Habeeb “did nothing wrong,” the DHS is now saying the same thing with regard to the entire community their NSEERS program had targeted. In their official announcement, the DHS gave the following reason for the cessation of NSEERS-

Over the past six years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented several new automated systems that capture arrival and exit information on nonimmigrant travelers to the United States, and DHS has determined that recapturing this data manually when a nonimmigrant is seeking admission to the United States is redundant and no longer provides any increase in security. DHS, therefore, has determined that it is no longer necessary to subject nationals from these countries to special registration procedures.

Cases such as Habeeb’s indicate that the NSEERS mistreated several nonimmigrant visitors to the U.S. from Arab countries. Therefore, while the suspension of the NSEERS is a much welcomed move, we must also not forget the damage to people and families that was caused by the program’s implementation over nine years. The mistrust of Arabs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 branched out into the profiling of other ethnic communities such as Sikhs and other South Asian groups as well as the wider community of Muslims in America. The recent congressional hearings lead by Peter King on the “radicalization of Islam” are another testament to this deep mistrust and societal damage. Several advocacy groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), along with the Arab American Institute (AAI), the National Immigration Forum (NIF) and the Rights Working Group (RWG), have praised the end of NSEERS, jointly stating-

The NSEERS program was a counter-productive response in the wake of September 11, 2001…One controversial aspect of the NSEERS program was a “domestic call-in” component that solicited registrations from more than 80,000 males who were inside the United States on temporary visas from predominantly Arab, South Asian, or Muslim-majority countries. The specific parameters of NSEERS revealed it to be a system that was a clear example of profiling: discriminatory, arbitrary, and, as DHS itself has stated, an ineffective national security measure…It is critical that DHS view this rule as a starting point for granting relief retroactively for those affected by NSEERS. Ultimately, these groups believe that NSEERS must be repealed in its entirety.

The steady erosion of basic human rights after the tragedy of 9/11 has affected numerous Americans and visitors to this country. In our current state of paranoia, we as a country have singled out and alienated specific groups, and programs such as NSEERS have added to this damage to the social and cultural fabric of our country. The suspension of the program is definitely a positive step by the DHS, which should be furthered by the full elimination of the program and a reform of the DHS policies and functioning to become unbiased and effective. The unfortunate cases of racial profiling, such as that of Habeeb, should not be repeated. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, we must strive towards an America that cherishes its diversity and doesn’t needlessly suspect those who are different. The time is right for us to re-embrace one of our greatest strengths as a nation – our diversity.

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Be inspired and be inspiring. Human rights can start with YOU.

There’s nothing better than a real-life inspirational story. Last week we brought you the amazing story of New York’s favorite District Attorney, 90 year old Robert Morganthau, and his commitment to equal justice for all. Today, we are happy to bring you another story confirming that New York stalwarts of justice are on a roll.

A New York Times article tells the story of Ex-Judge Michael A. Corriero and his commitment to supporting Qing Hong Wu, a man who he sentenced as a juvenile 15 years ago, for misdemeanors on the “mean streets” of New York. Motivated by Wu’s reputation as a stellar student, and intent on creating a juvenile criminal system that promised a chance for reform, Corriero promised Wu that if he got educated, worked hard, and reformed his life, he would stand behind him if ever he needed it. Today Wu desperately needs Corriero’s help and Corriero, long-retired, is doing everything he can to ensure justice.

Qing Hong Wu moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 5 years old. With his parents working long hours to make ends meet, he got mixed-up in some bad company at the age of 15. At his trial, the teenager pleaded guilty, saying, “I’m sorry and I really hope that you will forgive me for all the pain and trouble I made them go through.” Court transcripts show that Judge Corriero called the case a tragedy and gave Wu the following advice,

This is not the end, this is really the beginning of a new period for you. I want you to educate yourself. Continue to read, follow the rules. You will want to get a job and become a meaningful, constructive member of society to help your family. I will be there to make sure that you can.

A model inmate, Wu took Judge Corriero’s advice very seriously. He was released from his nine year reformatory sentence in three years and worked towards turning his life around; he studied hard and supported his mother by working his way up to the position of Vice-President of IT at a management company, and is now engaged to be married. Inspired by the example of his mother, sister and fiance becoming U.S. citizens, he applied for citizenship last November, 15 years after having served his time. Immediately, Wu became subject to 1996 laws that make no allowance for those who have rehabilitated their lives and earned a place in society. He was locked up by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in a detention center in New Jersey and is facing deportation to China, a country that he has not lived in for 25 years.

At the time that Mr. Wu pleaded guilty, he was not made aware of the consequences to his immigration future that could be a direct result of his sentence. Currently, the only way that Mr. Wu’s deportation can be stayed is if he is granted a pardon that erases his criminal record. While in detention, Wu wrote a letter to Judge Corriero, reminding him about the promises that they had made to each other 15 years ago. Amongst the many appeals for his release from employers, friends and family is the strong appeal that Judge Corriero, now 67 and retired, has made to Governor David Paterson, saying that Mr. Wu has earned his second chance and should be allowed to remain in the country.

Judge Corriero is of the strong opinion that while on the one hand the justice system aims to rehabilitate those accused of crimes, especially juveniles, so as to prevent against the trap of them repeatedly re-entering the criminal system, a parallel law enforcement system is working directly against this by ignoring the details of individual cases and blindly enforcing old laws. In his book, “Judging Children as Children: A Proposal for a Juvenile Justice System”, Judge Corriero envisages a more flexible justice system that supports and nurtures those who have committed mistakes and learnt from them, allowing them to change their lives rather than perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Now the Executive Director of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of New York City, the judge is going to great lengths to do something for Mr. Wu. We always believe that human rights begins with an individual. Judge Corriero has made a personal effort, and we really hope that this, combined with all the support that Mr. Wu has received, will make a difference.

In the mean time, if you want to be an inspiration, join SAALT’s new video project, “Say it Loud: Share Your Story for Immigration Reform”, As Congress and the Administration debate immigration reform this Spring, SAALT is collecting video testimonials from individuals who have a personal story to tell about how they might have been affected by the broken immigration system and what immigration reform would mean to them. These stories of personal experience will serve as powerful and inspiring tools in the mobilization towards immigration reform, so if you have something to say, then create a video with your personal take on this question, “Why do you believe the U.S. immigration system needs to change”. Send it to SAALT and join the likes of Morgenthau and Judge Corriero by taking a step for human rights!

UPDATE: We are very pleased to tell you that this story has a happy ending. As a result of Judge Corriero’s personal appeal for justice and all the support that Mr. Wu has received since he was detained in November, Governor Patterson announced his pardon on Saturday. Gov. Patterson said that based on the exemplary way the Qing Wu served time, and rose from his mistakes by turning his life around, he has been pardoned for the misdemeanors he was charged with in his youth. The full and unconditional pardon that Mr. Wu received should prevent the Federal Government from deporting him, but should also allow him to be eligible for citizenship, the application that got this entire process started in the first place. A statement released by the Governor said that in his mind, Wu’s case was a chance to draw attention to “the harsh inequity and rigidity of the immigration laws.” We are with Judge Corriero in hoping that this does not remain one family’s happy ending, and is, instead, a signal of change for the criminal justice system and the immigration system so that they work together to allow people to recover from their mistakes and reclaim their lives.

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