INS Continues Registering Foreign Nationals, Ridge Sworn in to Head DHS
Pakistani and Saudi Arabian nationals in the United States must register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) by February 21 under a controversial special registration program announced last year by Attorney General John Ashcroft. The program requires registration with immigration authorities by nonimmigrant men (that is, those who are in the US on temporary visas), who are aged 16 and older and come from any one of 25 countries. The designated countries are predominantly Arab and Muslim, as well as states where Al Qaeda is particularly active. The program, which is a key component of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), currently has four separate rounds. Rounds one and two applied to men from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. On January 16, the deadline for registration for these groups was extended through February 7 to make up for individuals who were unable to register by the deadline. Round three includes Saudi Arabian and Pakistani nationals. The fourth round requests nationals of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Kuwait to register between February 28 and March 28. As of January 19, almost 24,000 men had registered. As many as 10 percent of registrants may face deportation for overstaying or otherwise violating the terms of their visas. Thus far 1,169 foreign nationals have been detained during the registration process; most have been released and a few remain in custody.
Critics of the program, which most recently have come to include the US Senate, have questioned the value of the program — which has been marked by long lines and widespread confusion caused by translation errors. The critics' concerns also include programmatic bias, the detention of foreign nationals waiting for green cards, and evidence that insufficient funds and staffing have caused INS offices to turn away prospective registrants — some of whom have been detained later for reporting after the deadline. In recognition of these concerns, an amendment to the Omnibus budget bill passed by the Senate on January 24 cut funding for the registration program and restored funds to an earlier, congressionally mandated program that will provide information on the identity of all visitors to the US by the year 2005. Criticism of the program drew attention last December when thousands of Californians held public protests following the detention of hundreds of Muslims who had voluntarily appeared at registration sites.
Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, who has served as President George W. Bush's homeland security advisor, was sworn in as secretary of homeland security on January 24, the same day as the formal creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Meanwhile, oversight and budgetary authority over the new department remains unclear. The Senate is considering creating an appropriations committee with responsibility over the DHS budget. The House has created a new steering committee, co-chaired by representative Christopher Cox (R-CA) and Ranking Minority Member Jane Harman (D-CA), to coordinate the work of the other committees with oversight and budgetary responsibility over parts of the new department. The DHS will incorporate 22 agencies and 170,000 employees, and was created to prevent future terrorist attacks and minimize damage from any that do occur. Most component agencies will not be folded into the new department until March 1. For additional information on this issue, see the Policy Beats from January 2003 and December 2002.
The General Services Administration has suspended recognition of the "matricula" ID cards issued by Mexican consulates to their citizens residing in the United States. The GSA announced on January 21 that matriculas would no longer be treated as valid identification for admittance to federal facilities. The cards, which state the name and age of the bearer, along with a photograph and a holographic seal, cost $29 and are available to any Mexican citizen who provides a birth certificate, a photo ID, and proof of residency in the US. Though ID cards have been used by Mexican citizens here for more than a century, more than 1.7 million cards have been issued since the development of new, high-tech cards in 1999. The program grew significantly after the September 11 attacks, and more than 750,000 cards were issued last year. The card is currently accepted in 14 states, 13 of which treat it as valid for applications for a driver's license. In addition, over 801 police departments, 80 individual cities, and thousands of businesses recognize the card while 66 banks, including Citibank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America, accept the cards as a legitimate form of identification for the purpose of opening an account. (see related article on remittances)
Critics of matriculas say that the cards are only useful for illegal immigrants who are otherwise unable to obtain US-issued IDs (such as a driver's license) and that they provide a form of "backdoor amnesty" for undocumented migrants. They also charge that some undocumented immigrants use more than one matricula in order to maintain multiple names and identities. Supporters say the cards make no claims as to the legal status of the bearer, offer immigrants and visitors the opportunity to function more productively in the US, and facilitate return visits to Mexico.
Educational institutions across the United States have until February 15 to begin using the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database. SEVIS allows schools to electronically provide information about foreign students to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the State Department. The system can also be used to ensure that foreign students and exchange visitors who have entered the US to study actually enroll in and follow the course of study they have indicated in their applications. Schools that have been certified to use SEVIS include major universities, vocational and trade schools, and public or private high schools that have exchange programs. Each foreign student's relevant information is entered into a central electronic database — including permanent and temporary addresses, visa type ("F" for academic students, "J" for exchange visitors, and "M" for vocational and language students), and current visa status. Schools are required to report any student who drops out of classes or fails to show up for class at the beginning of a given session. By August 1, all scholars and foreign students enrolled in schools and universities must be entered in SEVIS.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has put in place a rule that will provide permanent resident status to as many as 5,000 eligible individuals from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos who currently reside in the United States as legal but nonetheless temporary aliens. The new rule took effect on December 26, 2002. Following the Vietnam War, many people from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were temporarily admitted into the United States and have remained in an indefinite immigration status ever since. To qualify for the program, an alien must be a national of one of the three Southeast Asian nations and have been temporarily admitted into the United States prior to October 1, 1997 under one of three paths: the Orderly Departure Program (a program implemented in 1979 to identify and select Vietnamese individuals according to their own refugee and immigration priorities), a refugee camp in East Asia, or a refugee camp administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Thailand.