Entering a land of immigrants

With the much criticised &quotspecial registration&quot protocol now out of commission, the US takes a step away from its knee-jerk reaction to the September 11, 2001, attacks.

There is a very particular smell that you get as soon as you step off the aircraft and into the United States.

It must be the brand of disinfectant they use at their airports.

For a land of immigrants, it is striking how central the issue of immigration (and border security) is to domestic US politics, and hence policies. Often described as a “wedge issue” (one which can divide members of groups that are otherwise uniform in their approval of certain politics), immigration is usually at the centre of a candidate for any major office’s policy brief – with many (regardless of party affiliation) coming down on the populist side of making immigration requirements stricter in order to limit entry into the job market of foreign employment seekers.

New border security rules were also at the heart of the then-newly set up Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. One of the more crude pieces of procedure to go into effect was something called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS, more commonly referred to as “Special Registration”, and implemented in 2002): it essentially required all males within a certain age group and from a list of 25 predominantly Muslim countries* (with Eritrea and North Korea the exceptions) to undergo additional questioning after completing standard procedures on entering the country on temporary visits.

The upshot of all of this is that if you’re a Pakistani, like this reporter, the rather unbelievably long queue at US immigration when you arrive in the country is just the tip of the iceberg. Having braved the snaking line, which is a sort of crystallisation of human impatience and fatigue in itself, you then get sent to what is almost invariably a harshly lit room that is populated almost exclusively by people of Muslim or Latin American origin.

This process can take anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours – depending on anything from how many Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff are on hand to just how suspicious your face appears to be.

The programme has come under much criticism over the last few years, with opponents arguing that it does little to deter the entry of those who plan on attacking the United States (a conclusion that the 9/11 Commission’s report supported), and merely treats mostly law abiding visitors harshly (an early version of the process required visitors to re-register 30 days after arrival, and then again after each year spent in the country).

Indeed in recent years, CBP officers who’ve taken down my information when carrying out NSEERS procedures have appeared decidedly uninterested in the proceedings: when I tried to get one such officer to update contact details that were about four years (and a serious lifestyle change) out of date, he responded by saying that he did not, in fact, particularly care. We then proceeded to have a chat about my chances of meeting an interesting person of the opposite sex while visiting New York. Nice chap, that guy.

Not everyone’s got advice on relationships, though. I was once almost disallowed entry to the country based on the fact that the immigration officer couldn’t find a two-year-old exit stamp in my passport. As is often the case with immigration cases, your fate tends to rest entirely in the hands of an individual CBP officer, with no option to appeal on site the added caveat that NSEERS provided, however, was that officers were instructed to essentially profile visitors based on their backgrounds as potential terrorists.

All that, though, is now over.

Effective April 27, 2011, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was ending the NSEERS process in an effort to “eliminate redundancies”, essentially arguing that the procedure was no longer required due to enhanced security in the visa and entry process across the board. In a sense, it marks a move away from the initial reactive measures following the September 11th attacks and towards policies that, though they may still profile certain types of people, do not do so overtly and without option of recourse.

It’s a pity, though. I was looking forward to letting that CBP officer know how his advice had turned out when I would have gone in for exit registration, 13 days from now.

*The full list of countries whose nationals were subject to NSEERS: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

You can follow all of our coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States on our website. Asad Hashim will be filing blogs and tweeting (@AsadHashim) from New York City throughout our coverage.