Democrats Threaten Funding for Visa-Tracking System

Even as congressional Democrats such as Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) complained that President Bush was not spending enough money to secure the homeland in the war on terror (see page 3), Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.) was working to eliminate funding for one of the most effective homeland security programs established since the terror attacks of September 2001. Last week, Kennedy successfully slipped an amendment into the fiscal 2003 omnibus spending bill (HJ Res 2) to de-fund the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which requires the fingerprinting and registration of foreign visitors entering the United States NSEERS has already resulted in the capture of seven suspected terrorists?including more than one connected to al Qaeda?entering or staying in the country, as well as several wanted criminals and prior immigration violators, according to the Justice Department. Kennedy’s amendment to de-fund NSEERS quietly passed the Senate by voice vote on January 23 as part of a larger amendment to the spending bill. Republican Hill staffers called the passage an error, mostly due to a rush to finish the spending bill. One Senate staffer told HUMAN EVENTS that Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, would restore NSEERS funding when the spending bill goes to conference between the House and Senate. Kennedy’s office did not respond to HUMAN EVENTS’ queries, but the senator, along with Sen. Russ Feingold (D.-Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D.-Mich.) outlined the reasons Democrats oppose the program in a December 24 letter asking Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to suspend it. “This special registration program appears to be a component of a second wave of roundups and detentions of Arab and Muslim males disguised as a perfunctory registration requirement,” the letter states. It goes on to compare the tracking of non-immigrant visitors to the detention of American citizens of Italian, Japanese, and German descent during World War II. Kennedy’s amendment, if included in the final version of the 2003 spending bill, would effectively put NSEERS on hold, pending a Senate committee study of the program. NSEERS, fully implemented at U.S. ports of entry and border stations in October 2002, has already led to the apprehension of seven terrorists and 341 other “law enforcement threats” trying to enter the country at legitimate points of entry, said Justice Department spokesman Chris Kobach. Among those arrested were convicted drug traffickers and other aggravated felons who are barred by their past crimes from entering the country, as well as previous immigration violators. Since the implementation of NSEERS, 34,793 visitors to the U.S. have been registered at points of entry to the U.S., according to the Justice Department. In addition to the registration of new visitors, the Justice Department announced in November three deadlines for mandatory registration of foreign visitors already within the U.S. from mostly Muslim countries. Through this domestic registration?which has to date enrolled 27,861 visitors?NSEERS has led to the arrest of 21 felons whose status legally bars them from the U.S., including a twice-convicted child molester from Iran. NSEERS has turned up a total of 2,477 visitors overstaying their visas or refusing to register with authorities?including one suspected terrorist who is now in custody. All of these now face deportation hearings, although none has been deported yet. Kobach said that in spite of outcries over mass arrests of Muslims, only 92 visa holders are currently in custody pending their hearings, either because they are considered flight risks or because of their prior criminal records. Under NSEERS, visitors within the U.S. who are nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Libya?all state sponsors of terrorism?were required to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service by December 16. Visa holders from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen had a January 10 deadline to register. Pakistani and Saudi Arabian visitors currently in the United States must register by February 21.