E.g., 10/04/2023
E.g., 10/04/2023
'Special Registration' Program

'Special Registration' Program

In November 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the implementation of a new "Special Registration" program designed to register foreign visitors from designated countries, in the United States at the time. This program, a component of a larger National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), has passed from the administration of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Although a significant amount of technical language is required to accurately convey the complexity of Special Registration, this Spotlight aims to map out the crucial aspects of the program, along with some of the reactions it has elicited from proponents and critics.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

The Special Registration program (also known as "Domestic Call-in Registration") is part of a larger National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).

The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) consists of: registration through various ports-of-entry and registration through the Special Registration program. By 2005, the plan is for NSEERS to function as a comprehensive entry-exit system that applies to almost all foreigner visitors. As of March 25, 2003, 110,534 individuals from 149 countries had been registered through both of these components of NSEERS. According to Attorney General John Ashcroft, through both components of NSEERS, U.S. authorities have apprehended eight people they suspect are terrorists, including one known member of Al Qaeda.

Back to the top

Port-of-Entry Registration. Port-of-entry registration began as a pilot program in September 2002 and has been implemented at all ports of entry (e.g., border crossings, sea ports, and airports) since October 2002. Port-of-entry registration applies to all foreign visitors entering the U.S. since October 2002 who are identified as presenting an elevated national security concern or who are from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria. The criteria for identifying these individuals is based on intelligence information provided to immigration officers at ports of entry or to visa-issuing officials abroad. Upon entry to the U.S., foreign visitors are fingerprinted, photographed, and asked detailed background information. Some 49,712 foreign visitors had registered through port-of-entry registration as of March 25, 2003. In addition to the initial registration, foreign visitors must also appear at a U.S. immigration office if they plan on staying in the country for more than 30 days, and all are required to complete a departure check only at a designated departure port (of which there are approximately 100 nationwide) on the same day that they intend to leave the country. For more information, see: http://www.immigration.gov/graphics/shared/lawenfor/specialreg/BLISTOFP.pdf

Back to the top

Special Registration. The Special Registration program, which was announced in November 2002 and officially launched in December 2002, requires all male foreign visitors, already in the U.S., aged 16 and older from specified countries to register at designated immigration offices within a given time period. This program, unlike the port-of-entry program that requires registration based on an elevated national security concern, depends on nationality-based criteria. To date, nationals from 25 countries have been identified to report to designated U.S. immigration offices to register. Except for North Korea, nearly all of the countries designated in Special Registration are predominantly Arab and Muslim. As of March 25, 2003, some 60,822 foreign visitors had registered through Special Registration.

Special Registration does NOT apply to those with asylum applications pending as of November 2002, nor to foreign diplomats. It also does not apply to permanent residents or naturalized citizens from the specified countries.

Back to the top

Special Registration applies to nationals of 25 countries, divided among four "Call-in" groups.


Table 1
Call-in Group
Required to register with DHS between:
Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan & Syria November 15, 2002 and December 16, 2002*
Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates & Yemen December 2, 2002 and January 10, 2003*
Pakistan & Saudi Arabia January 13, 2003 and March 21, 2003**
Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan & Kuwait February 24, 2003 and April 25, 2003**
* Note: Countries from Call-in Groups #1 and #2 had a two-week reopening of their registration period -- beginning January 27, and ending February 7, 2003.
** Note: Countries from Call-in Groups #3 and #4 had a one-month extension on their registration deadline. The deadline for Group #3 was extended from February 21 to March 21, 2003 and the deadline for Group #4 was extended from March 28 to April 25, 2003.
For more information, see: http://www.immigration.gov/graphics/shared/lawenfor/specialreg/ index.htm

Back to the top

Special Registration requires multiple encounters with immigration officials.

Registration includes a meeting with an immigration official where the interviewees are fingerprinted (both digitally and with ink), photographed, and asked a series of questions under oath. In addition to the initial registration, foreign visitors must also appear at a U.S. immigration office within 10 days of the one-year anniversary date of initial registration. All of these foreign visitors are required to complete a departure check only at a designated departure port (of which there are approximately 100 nationwide) on the same day that they intend to leave the country. Willful refusal to register is a criminal violation; overstaying a visa is a civil violation.

Back to the top

As of March 25, 2003, a total of 60,822 male foreign visitors had registered through Special Registration.

As of March 25, 2003, a total of 60,822 men had registered through Special Registration. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials estimate that an average of 1,184 individuals register daily, although this number does not reflect the rush of registrants that is experienced at the end of every registration period. Some 2,034 male foreign visitors have been temporarily detained through the program for various violations of immigration law. Of those detained, 165 remain in custody, though according to a Bureau of Immigraation and Customs Enforcement official, many are eligible for release on bond. Forty-six felons have been identified through Special Registration, including cocaine traffickers, child molesters, and individuals convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.


Graph 1

110,534 total individuals registered

Back to the top

Public criticism exists regarding the Special Registration program's scope and efficacy.

As a result of what critics perceive as inefficiency and bias in the Special Registration program, immigration advocates, ethnic community members, and civil rights activists have strongly voiced the need for a review of the implementation of the Special Registration program. Public criticism of the program has focused on the following issues:

  • Programmatic Bias
    The Special Registration program is modeled using nationality-based criteria. Unlike port-of-entry registration, which registers foreign visitors based on an elevated security concern, critics say that Special Registration implicitly assumes that all citizens of the stated countries are suspected of participating in terrorist activities.
  • Lack of Community Outreach
    The U.S. government conducted virtually no outreach to the Middle Eastern community in order to inform foreign immigrants about the registration initiative; critics maintain that many communities also feel subject to ethnic profiling.
  • Insufficient Staffing
    Immigration officials have not been adequately trained in the registration procedures, according to critics, and therefore are ill prepared to handle the number of individuals who have come to register, especially in districts with high concentrations of these nationals.
  • Flawed Foreign Visitor Database
    Critics call the foreign visitor database incomplete and flawed because it is not up-to-date. These errors have led to a number of individuals being detained on immigration violations at the time of registration, although they had pending visa applications.
  • Negative Impact on all DHS Functions
    According to critics, the program has diverted resources from other, more effective programs, while increasing visa application backlogs.
  • Ineffective Strategy for Apprehending Terrorists
    Critics of the program also assert that Special Registration is simply a public relations strategy of the Bush administration designed to placate the fears of the American public, rather than as a credible means of apprehending terrorists.

Back to the top

Congress has acted in response to requests for a review of the Special Registration program.

The Senate has raised its own concerns about the program; lawmakers amended the Omnibus budget bill on January 24, 2003 to cut funding for Special Registration. House representatives blocked the Senate provision in the final bill, but have demanded details regarding the development and efficacy of the program. They also have asked for a fuller explanation of the detentions that followed the registration of some men in the various call-in groups, particularly the detention of Iranians in California following Group #1 call-in registration. The Senate and House Appropriations Committees asked for documentation, including a demonstration of the program's efficacy, to be delivered from the Justice Department by March 1. As of April 1, no such documents had been submitted.