Research Post: the National Security Entry Exit Registration System, past, present, and future

I&A Research Teams are groups of dedicated volunteers who monitor breaking news and delve into ongoing topics affecting archives and the archival profession. Under the leadership of the I&A Steering Committee, the Research Teams compile their findings into Research Posts. Each post offers a summary and coverage of an issue. This comes from On-Call Research Team #2, which looks into real-time issues affecting archivists and archives. 

Please be aware that the sources cited have not been vetted and do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

In 2002, the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) established a national registry for foreign visitors from 25 predominantly Middle Eastern countries (Gamboa 2003). NSEERS, also referred to as “Special Registration,” was a post-9/11 program that consisted of three components:

  • non-citizens had to register when they entered the U.S.
  • they had to regularly check in with immigration officials
  • and those leaving the country were tracked to ensure that people did not remain in the country illegally

Registering entailed getting fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated. Those in violation of this program would be arrested, fined, and possibly deported (Muaddi 2016).

The program did not operate fully, even early on; parts of the program were dropped beginning in 2003. At that time, the registration portion of NSEERS ended because it was made redundant by other programs in place or being developed (Gamboa 2003). The Obama administration suspended NSEERS in 2011, though it technically remained in place, and finally ended it in December 2016.

While in place, NSEERS resulted in zero terrorism convictions and even the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) thought the program was redundant and ineffective (Mauddi 2016). In his letter to President Obama calling for the end of the NSEERS program, Eric Schneiderman, New York State Attorney General, wrote that not only did it not reduce terrorist activity, but it encouraged mistrust and fear towards law enforcement in some communities (Liptak & Peled 2016).

The United States enacted similar programs in the recent past. From 1942-1946, the U.S. incarcerated as many as 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent in ten concentration camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. This program has been widely panned as unjust and a national disgrace, yet some supporters of a national Muslim registry have referred to this program as precedent (Ford 2015; Hawkins 2016). Similarly cited, Carter’s efforts during the Iran hostage crisis, 1979-1981, banned Iranians from entering the U.S. (with some exceptions for religious minorities and those with medical emergencies) and required the registration of roughly 60,000 Iranian students already in America. Experts find the comparisons don’t hold up (Jacobson 2015).

Other modern programs that are reminiscent of NSEERS include the influence of “see something, say something” initiatives in the U.S. (Mirza 2016) that mirror a DHS initiative begun around 2010; the growing network of facial recognition databases being used by law enforcement agencies across the country and globally (Newman 2016; Beaumont 2013); and the terrorist watch list, which is notorious for incorrectly including people on its various manifestations (Zetter 2016).

The Trump administration may roll back the Obama administration’s full NSEERS cancellation. Should NSEERS prove to be gone forever, the historic record demonstrates that future programs will follow.


Sources Cited

  • Beaumont, P. “NSA leaks: US and Britain team up on mass surveillance.” The Guardian, 2013 June 22. Retrieved 2017 February 27.
  • Ford, M. “The Return of Korematsu.” The Atlantic, 2015 November 19. Retrieved 2017 January 29.
  • Gamboa, S. “Homeland Security Ends Registration.” Associated Press, 2003 December 1.
  • Hawkins, D. “Japanese American internment is ‘precedent’ for national Muslim registry, prominent Trump backer says.” Washington Post, 2016 November 17. Retrieved 2017 January 29.
  • Jacobson, L. “Why Trump’s Muslim Ban Isn’t Like Jimmy Carter’s Actions on Iranians.” Politifact, 2015 December 17. Retrieved 2017 January 29.
  • Liptak, K. & Peled, S. “Obama administration ending program once used to track mostly Arab and Muslim men.” CNN, 2016 December 22. Retrieved 2017 February 27.
  • Mirza, W. “‘See something, say something’ culture is dangerous: How it spawns Islamophobia and keeps America insecure.” Salon, 2016 August 20. Retrieved 2017 January 29.
  • Muaddi, N. “The Bush-era Muslim registry failed. Yet the US could be trying it again.” CNN, 2016 December 22. Retrieved 2017 February 27.
  • Newman, K.H. “Cops Have a Database of 117M Faces. You’re Probably In It.” Wired, 2016 October 18. Retrieved 2017 January 29.
  • Zetter, K. “How Does the FBI Watch List Work? And Could It Have Prevented Orlando?” Wired, 2016 June 17. Retrieved 2017 January 29.

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