WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- The Bush administration has ordered tough new immigration exit rules and added five more Muslim countries to an alien registration list, as part of major effort to keep track of foreign visitors considered a security risk, United Press International was told Wednesday.
According to officials at the Department of Justice and one at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, male citizens from Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Bangladesh and Indonesia will have to register when they enter the country and those already here must contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service by March 28. This brings to 25 the number of countries, mostly Muslim and many in the Middle East, whose male citizens face special registration if they come to the United States.
Others already listed include: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Once registered, visitors from these countries will have to check out through special exit offices when they leave the country or face being barred from reentering the United States.
It is unclear how many people are affected by the latest order. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that some 1.5. million of the 33 million foreign born residents are so-called "long term visitors" to the United States. There are also an estimated 8 million undocumented aliens living in the country.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization service was severely criticized for not being able to keep track of millions of aliens in the United States.
The target of these new rules are students, people with work visas and other visitors who will be in the United States for extended periods but citizens and green card holders are exempted.
There are relatively few ports ready to process the exiting travelers, according to Crystal L. Williams, director of liaison and information for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She said that the immigration service instructions have been faulty as well. She said the INS office in Pittsburgh told returning aliens that they could exit at the Port of Philadelphia, but that it wasn't ready to process people.
This is the third major registration call since last November, in a program that has been widely criticized as racially motivated and that the AILA calls "deeply flawed." Williams said that many INS offices had not even been told of the policy and many visitors were told to come back later.
A wide range of congressional, Muslim religious groups and others have criticized the registration scheme for racial profiling and suggested that the United States is trying to discourage Muslims and people from Middle Eastern countries from visiting.
The first order covered citizens from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and the Sudan and gave them until December 16th to report. When the first group voluntarily reported, Williams said, hundreds were unexpectedly detained by the immigration service.
Justice Department Spokesman Mark Carollo said since that first round "a little under 800 people (had been) detained temporarily." He said as soon as background checks were completed "they were either released on their own recognizance or presented before a judge. We have also detained 54 people on criminal charges," who are still in custody.
"Everyone else has been released, many on bond, and some facing deportation proceedings," he said.
He defended the program claiming since they began registering visitors at the borders last September they had snagged over 240 terrorist suspects, wanted criminals and others. "It is mandated by the Congress," Corollo said. "We have an obligation to enforce the laws, particularly after 9-11, to lower the risk of terrorist attacks."
Earlier this week, another Justice Department spokesman, Jorge Martinez, defended the arrest of hundreds of immigrants in Los Angeles last month. In an interview realesed by the State Departmnent, he said many of them were common criminals who would have been a potential threat to society had they not been detained.
In some cases, where individuals were detained but had lawfully filed an application to stay in the country, Martinez said, immigration officials would take those circumstances into account. But, he added, for "any individual who is out of status or in illegal status, INS has a duty and a responsibility to ... temporarily detain that individual."
He rejected criticism that the registration system may not lead to the arrests of suspected terrorists as such people never go to a government department to give interviews.
"It is known that the Al Qaeda leadership tells its cell members to assimilate within the community, to comply with all laws and regulations, and not to shine a spotlight on any terrorist planning activities that they may be conducting," he said, adding that "(Sept 11 hijacker) Mohammad Atta actually applied for an adjustment of (visa) status."
He also speculated that when faced with the choice of being in criminal violation of the law or trying to "bluff their way through a federal law enforcement officer" some would-be terrorists might even choose to leave the United States.
Martinez pointed to the example of the 19 Sept, 11 hijackers, all of whom arrived in the United States on valid visas. A program like this would have netted some of those individuals, who had slipped into the country despite being on terror watch lists, he said.
"All of the 19 hijackers were doing something else other than what they said they were going to do while they were here," he said. "Three of them overstayed their visas. None of them lived wherever they said they were going to live." In fact, he added, some of those who held student visas "weren't even enrolled in college".
The new rules, whether used to register visa applicants abroad or those already in the United States, will verify the stated purpose of the visas, residential addresses, and will include photographs and fingerprints of the visa holder. The fingerprints, said Martinez, would be matched against databases of wanted terrorists, felons or other criminals.
Also, should a visitor overstay his or her visa, "the system would automatically give you a notice that this is happening, something that we didn't have before," he said.
On Dec 24, community advocacy groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed a class action lawsuit alleging religious discrimination against the INS and Attorney General Ashcroft.
"This is not a system based on race or religion or ethnicity. It is solely based on national security and intelligence-based criteria about terrorist threats," said Martinez.