After Nine Years of Pressure, DHS Finally Drops ‘SB1070 for Muslims’

Advocates say it's a last ditch effort by a department that's already lost credibility.

By Channing Kennedy Apr 29, 2011

Some rare good news came in a press release from the Department of Homeland Security yesterday (via CAIR):

In light of the development of and improvements to the Department’s information collection systems and international information sharing agreements, the Secretary has determined that subjecting nationals from designated countries to a special registration process that manually recaptures data already collected through automated systems is redundant and does not provide any increase in security.

After careful consideration, the Secretary of Homeland Security, by this notice, is removing all currently designated countries from the listing of countries whose nationals and citizens are required to comply with NSEERS registration requirements: 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.

The end of NSEERS (National Security Entry/Exit Registration System, sometimes called Special Registration), one of the most explicitly racist, underreported initiatives in post-9/11 America, comes as a pleasant surprise for immigration advocates. And while the agency’s immediate reasons for the program’s sudden shutdown aren’t clear — be they pressure from the White House or simple administrative costs — it’s a palpable civil rights victory for immigrant communities of color. "I think the news surprised a lot of us," says Monami Maulik, executive director of the NYC working-class Arab and South Asian community organization DRUM. "But really, we’ve been meeting with legislators for years about ending this."

Initiated in September 2002, NSEERS functioned like Arizona’s SB 1070, with working-class Muslims as the target. Its first phase required all non-citizen male residents, ages 16 to 65, from a list of ‘suspect’ nations, to register at INS offices. Thousands of families went out of their way to comply with the law, thinking it would be part of the government-sponsored pathways to citizenship that they were already participating in. Instead, in July 2003, the Washington Post reported it as the deportation of "the largest number of visitors from Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries in U.S. history — more than 13,000 of the nearly 83,000 men older than 16 who complied with the registration program by various deadlines between last September and April."

The impact was felt especially by working-class South Asian, Arab, Sikh and Muslim communities in New York City; the economic impact of losing fathers, sons, and husbands meant that many families suddenly faced homelessness. The Muslim community in Coney Island is said to have lost a full third of its population almost overnight. In its later phases, NSEERS focused on U.S. ports of entry, with the same haphazard scrutiny and interrogations. 

Maulik is a green card holder herself. "I had to go through the whole thing — retina scan, fingerprinting — every time," she says. "And if anything had been triggered, I’d, well, I’d be in trouble." She spoke of the taxi drivers she helps organize; for them, visiting home to help care for an elderly parent meant risking an old traffic ticket raising a flag and triggering deportation proceedings, which would cut the entire family off from a source of income. 

"There’s a lot of people who don’t leave the country, even if they get status and they’re able to, because they’re just very afraid — that conditions back home, that U.S. relations with their home country, even something in their past that may not have been an issue could trigger something," Maulik says. Numbers aren’t public for how many people were deported or turned away through the program’s port-of-entry operations.

So why drop NSEERS now? Maulik thinks it’s a political calculation by a tarnished DHS, "in a moment where they’ve really gotten worse in two years under the Obama administration in terms of general racial profiling." As Seth Freed Wessler reported here last week, despite the federal government’s disavowing of SB 1070, the deportation pipeline still begins in Washington. It could also be a gesture of goodwill towards the Middle East’s new post-revolutionary governments. Or maybe it’s just the extra paperwork created by the program’s overlap with more-automated, less-racist US-VISIT.

But one thing’s certain, and that’s that changes like this don’t happen unless there’s community pressure. Says Maulik: "When [the first wave of deportations in 2002] happened in Los Angeles, when five hundred women showed up outside, waiting for their husbands and brothers and sons to come out, that sparked it. And then we started doing demonstrations en masse in New York, and know-your-rights presentations. There was so much mass public pressure about it that that forced the first phase to end. And this second time around, that had a lot to do with it."

Maulik also cautions that the program is dormant, not abolished, and there’s still been no accountability. "There have been no reparations, despite the fact that none of these people were found to have anything to do with terrorism. They were targeted and deported based on civil probation violations, based on their religion and nationality — and that precedent allows something like SB 1070, or could allow the next national security crisis, however it’s defined, to resurrect it. This is a dark period in U.S. history, and these families aren’t going to get their lives back."