Opinion

Commentary: Homeland Security turns the page on a flawed round-up policy

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez MCT

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government established a policy requiring men and boys from 25 countries - almost all Muslim, and all of them in Asia or Africa - to report for "special registration." Turns out it wasn't such a hot idea.

Last week (April 28), the Department of Homeland Security finally shelved the policy, stating in the Federal Register, "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 of individuals, such as country of origin."

Hmmm, so police work is more productive for government anti-terrorism efforts than dragnet profiling? Few Americans are even aware that this program was ever in place. In the heady days following al-Qaida's devastating attacks on New York and Washington, the Justice Department established the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, which identified 25 countries it deemed terrorist breeding grounds, and required male nationals from those countries older than 16 to report for fingerprinting, photographing and lengthy interviews with federal officials. Subsequently, people from the designated counties were checked as they entered the country at various ports.

Some 83,000 reported for special registration, despite what critics complained were paltry efforts by federal officials to notify the public of the new policy, which consisted mostly of publishing it in the Federal Register. Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, law professor at Penn State and Director Center for Immigrants'Rights says, many people who were expected to cooperate weren't exactly reading the Federal Register at breakfast each morning.

As a result, some people who were legally in the country later fell into trouble, charged with "willfully" disobeying the order to register. Many simply didn't know they were supposed to register. Later, they'd show up at an immigration office for another paperwork matter, and found themselves accused and deportable for not registering. Advocates are pressuring the government now to clear up the status of such individuals, arguing they shouldn't be penalized now that the program is dismantling.

Many Americans might just shrug and say, "Well, better safe than sorry." So what if thousands of innocent Muslims, Arabs and South Asian men felt hassled, unfairly targeted merely for their place of birth or religion.

Most of the foreign nationals who registered were students, business travelers or family visiting relatives legally living in the U.S. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine any actual terrorist readily stepping forward for registration, although this argument didn't dissuade the policy's proponents, such as then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Critics have also long contended that not a single terrorist has been caught by the extra scrutiny. "To my knowledge, not one actual terrorist was identified," said James W. Ziglar, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in a 2004 interview with the New York Times. "But what we did get was a lot of bad publicity, litigation and disruption in our relationships with immigrant communities and countries that we needed help from in the war on terror." Government officials say any evidence to the contrary is classified.

If all of this strikes you as a throwback to the era of concentration camps for Japanese-Americans or mandatory registration for people of German and Italian descent during World War II to register ... congratulations! You can see how discrimination stemming from fear makes for unjust policy.

The timing of the notice to finally suspend special registration - the policy is not completely deep-sixed - was interesting. Within days, the man whose sinister plot led to this over-reach was dead, his body thrown into the sea.

Now that Osama bin Laden has been killed, it is a good time to assess our anti-terror strategies. The country is approaching the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and we've had time to assess what works and what doesn't, and to devise new approaches to combat terrorism. The challenge now, as ever, is how best to protect the nation yet not sacrifice our cherished freedoms. NSEERS was a mistake from the beginning.

Bin Laden's death doesn't end the threat of more terrorist attacks, nor should it cause us to lessen our vigilance. But it should redouble our confidence that patient intelligence work - not knee-jerk roundups born of fear and loathing - is the best safeguard not only of our security but also of our constitutional principles.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.

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