DHS moves to dismantle visitor registry program

The department is issuing rule changes to put the final nail in the coffin of a long-abandoned program targeting countries with active terrorist groups.

Shutterstock image (by Bruce Rolff): machine fingerprint.

The Department of Homeland Security is removing outdated regulations related to what it said is an obsolete registration program for foreign nationals from targeted countries.

The rule, which DHS reportedly plans to publish in the Dec. 23 Federal Register, would cancel out the lingering regulatory structure that underpinned the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program.

NSEERS was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and at one time required non-immigrant visitors to the United States from 25 nations to register. With the exception of North Korea, all the nations covered by the program are predominantly Muslim. The program also restricted the ports of entry that visitors from those countries could use to enter or exit the U.S.

DHS stopped using NSEERS in 2011, saying that the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system and Customs and Border Protection's Advance Passenger Information System automated information collection systems rendered NSEERS' manual registrations redundant and obsolete. That 2011 change, however, merely removed all 25 countries from the list of required participants; it did not scrap the NSEERS program or remove the legal framework that authorizes it.

In its planned filing for Dec. 23, DHS said NSEERS “no longer provided an increase in security in light of DHS’s evolving assessment of the threat posed to the United States by international terrorism.”

In the filing, the agency said much the same about the remaining rules. “The regulatory structure pertaining to NSEERS no longer provides a discernable public benefit as the program has been rendered obsolete.”

President-elect Donald Trump has on multiple occasions called for a registry for Muslims and a ban on immigration from countries seen as sources of Islamic extremism. Opponents of such policies have suggested that NSEERS might be rebooted as a ready-made system.

The rule change would prevent that reboot, and require that a new program be authorized and spun up from scratch. And the underlying technology might not have been up to the task in any case. A 2012 DHS inspector general report found that NSEERS relied on obsolete databases and suffered from "cumbersome design and frequent outages."

In canceling the program in 2011, DHS said it "has refined its approach to identifying aliens posing a threat to the nation. As threats to the United States evolve, DHS seeks to identify specific individuals and actions that pose specific threats, rather than focusing on more general designations of groups or individuals, such as country of origin."

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