| A woman at a demonstration outside the Immigration and Naturalisation Service offices in lower Manhattan when the new policy was announced. (AFP)
Washington, Jan. 18: The next time you arrive in the US on a temporary visit, you could be pulled off the immigration line at the airport and asked for your fingerprints and other exhaustive details.
If you are staying in America for more than 30 days on a single visit, all males above a specified age could be asked to go to the nearest immigration office and register: a process, which registrants complain, now takes upto 15 hours.
Although India — unlike Pakistan and Bangladesh — is not listed among countries with potential terrorists, whose nationals require mandatory registration, it is not guaranteed that Indians arriving in the US will not be treated on a par with them. Or with nationals of 22 other Muslim majority states and North Korea. This came through unambiguously during a briefing specially arranged for the foreign media here yesterday by Kris Kobach, counsel to US attorney-general John Ashcroft.
Kobach said the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) has so far enabled the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) to “track the entry and exit and the whereabouts of 54,000 foreign visitors enrolled thus far”. “These registrants come from 148 different countries.... That includes essentially every country on the earth that I could point to on a map. You know, only the very smallest countries remain that haven’t been registered.”
Kobach said he was unable at this stage to give a country-wise breakdown of those who have been pulled into the NSEER system, but the high figure of 148 countries means at least some Indians would have been fingerprinted on arrival or asked to register later after being allowed into the US.
Kobach made it very clear to the foreign media here “that NSEERS is not limited to any one country”.
Although “the registration was originally meant for visitors from the five “state sponsors of terrorism”, namely Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, he said the majority of those registered so far do not actually come from these five states. “The vast number (that) are picked — are pulled into the system because intelligence-based criteria are used by the INS inspectors at the port of entry to identify people coming in who meet certain criteria for being registered in the system”.
Kobach explicitly said: “There is no distinction in those criteria that would exclude any one country or that would necessarily include any one country. And so that’s why we have so many countries represented in that 148 statistic.”
The counsel to the powerful attorney-general, who has had the last word on immigration since September 11, explained one of the methods by which visitors to the US are picked on arrival for special attention even if they come from India or the UK or Japan, countries which do not figure in the list for mandatory registration.
“I should also point out that state department officials (at US embassies) in the issuance of a visa can identify someone who is appropriate for NSEERS enrollment. That is to say, someone who it might make sense to go ahead and just check and make sure after 30 days that they are living where they said they would live.
“And so, it is not only the INS but also the state department officials who can, by computer, notify the inspector at the port of entry that this person would be worth just checking in, making sure that they leave on time, so that at least we can gain that information for this portion of those non-immigrant visa holders.”
Kobach said “the idea of registering people is not a new idea at all. The authority to do so in the US is based on a 1952 provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and in the past, the US has exercised that authority from time to time, but had not done so recently, certainly not in the 1980s. And in the 1990s, it had begun with respect to four of the state sponsors of terrorism, but it had been done with a paper and ink system that really wasn’t making the most effective use of the option to register people”.
Kobach made it clear that in any case, the US Congress has mandated that by 2005, a comprehensive system should be in place at America’s borders for all non-immigrant visa holders. “That would apply to you regardless of where you come from.”
He clarified that the figure of 148 is for countries whose nationals have been registered so far. “That is to say anyone, from any country, can be registered.”
At the same time, Kobach said registration does not necessarily apply to “everybody that walks through the port of entry... and that 148 number will continue to climb each day or each week, as eventually more and more people are pulled into the programme because they happen to meet the criteria that the state department or the INS use”.