By William Fisher Truthout 4/28/07

    As a new report charged that the US Department of Homeland Security is illegally delaying the citizenship applications of thousands of immigrants by profiling Muslims and subjecting them to indefinite security checks, a major American-Arab advocacy group launched a campaign to end a controversial post-9/11 program it says discriminates against Muslim visitors to the US.

    In a surprise move, the Pentagon itself announced it wants to close the domestic terrorism spying venture known as Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON). The program has been attacked by civil and human rights organizations for collecting information on peaceful activists inside the United States.

    According to a Pentagon spokesman, the new undersecretary of defense for intelligence, James Clapper, found “disappointing results” during a review of the TALON database.

    Clapper “has assessed the results of the TALON program and does not believe they merit continuing the program as currently constituted, particularly in light of its image in Congress and the media,” Ryder said.

    The Pentagon acknowledged last year that part of the information collected in the database “either should have been purged, or was data that was not appropriate for reporting in that system.”

    The TALON program began in 2003 to track suspects with possible links to terrorists as part of the post-9/11 “war on terror.”

    But information leaked to news reporters revealed that the Pentagon was collecting information on peace activists and monitoring antiwar protests across the country.

    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last year filed several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking to uncover the identities of peace groups being spied on by the Pentagon.

    The filing was on behalf of several national groups and seven Florida-based peace activist groups, including Florida members of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker religious-based peace group.

    “We found there were any number of things with respect to that program where […] data that was maintained in a database probably should not have been maintained there,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly has not yet made a formal decision to shut down the program.

    TALON has also attracted the wrath of influential members of Congress. For example, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says, “There are ways to protect defense facilities and military personnel without this kind of overreaching.” He lauded the Pentagon’s will to put an end to the program.

    “TALON was another costly, controversial and poorly focused venture that did not make us any safer,” Leahy said.

    “Without clear rules and close oversight, databases like this can easily be abused to violate the public’s constitutional and privacy rights,” he added.

    At the same time, a new report from the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at the New York University School of Law charges that the US government is illegally delaying the naturalization applications of thousands of immigrants by profiling individuals it perceives to be Muslim. The report documents the impact of expanded security checks on the lives of those experiencing citizenship delays, often for years.

    The report – “Americans on Hold: Profiling, Citizenship, and the War on Terror” – analyzes these delays and their impact within an international human rights framework. It offers specific policy recommendations to help end discrimination in access to citizenship and other human rights violations.

    “Citizenship delays are not just bureaucratic inconveniences; they are the result of discriminatory, ineffective, and undemocratic policies that violate fundamental human rights,” said Professor Smita Narula, CHRGJ’s Faculty Director.

    “In the name of fighting a ‘war on terror,’ the government is breaking up families, engendering fear and insecurity, and disenfranchising entire communities,” he says.

    The report contends that since the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 “US immigration policy has been heavily influenced by counterterrorism efforts. The government has folded immigration bodies into national security institutions and has institutionalized a policy of discrimination against immigrants perceived to be Muslim on the basis of their name, race, religion, ethnicity or national origin.”

    It says, “Increased security checks in the citizenship application process, manifested in a substantial expansion of FBI name check procedures, have illegally delayed the processing of applications from Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian men.”

    The result, the report says, is that “Thousands of immigrants have chosen the United States as their new home; they abide by US laws, pay US taxes, contribute to our nation’s economy, and strengthen its multicultural foundations. They have passed every test and fulfilled every requirement related to the naturalization process, but continue to wait for security clearance on their application. In response to repeated inquiries to immigration authorities, applicants are simply told that their application is pending security clearance.

    The organization quotes one applicant as saying, “They only have two words for us: ‘security check.’ That’s it.” Another is quoted as recounting, “I have been to Federal Plaza (ten times), and the supervisor there told me, ‘It could be one day or it can be 99 years.'”

    The report alleges that individuals experiencing citizenship delays are unable to file visa petitions for their immediate relatives; are greatly hindered in their ability to travel to see sick relatives, and often endure restrictions on their ability to work or receive lifesaving benefits.

    Federal law requires the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), now part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to grant or deny citizenship within 120 days of an applicant’s examination. USCIS has also set a policy goal of processing applications within six months from the time of filing.

    But the CHRGJ report says that DHS data “reveals that more than two-thirds of the over 2.2 million applications filed since April 1, 2001 were not processed within 180 days; more than 776,000 applicants had been waiting for more than a year; approximately 158,000 applicants had been waiting for more than two years; while approximately 41,000 had been waiting for three years or more.”

    According to the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, prolonged name checks “significantly delay adjudication of immigration benefits for many applicants, hinder backlog reduction efforts, and rarely, if ever, achieve their intended national security objectives,” the report says.

    Jaycee Huckerby, CHRGJ’s research director, says, “Discriminatory profiling is illegal under international law and is a poor substitute for real intelligence work. Taking years to identify individuals who are security threats does not make us safer. Ensuring timely and good faith completions of background checks will help the US advance its national security goals.”

    Huckerby adds, “As a State party to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the US is obligated to ensure nondiscrimination in access to citizenship as well as other human rights. A number of expert human rights bodies have affirmed that the “war on terror” cannot be invoked to deny noncitizens’ rights.”

    She points out that profiling affects a number of human rights, including the right to liberty of movement, the right to profess and practice religion, and the right to nondiscrimination in access to public health and social services.

    “Profiled immigrants may be stopped, delayed, detained and subjected to extended and unnerving security checks while traveling. Prior to September 11, 2001 the list of individuals suspected of terrorism and banned from air travel contained only 16 names; as of October 2006 the “no-fly” list contained 44,000 names. Airport officials are reportedly required to stop anyone with a “Muslim name” and name-check that individual against the list. Airport computers throw up red flags even when names are merely similar to those found on the list,” the CHRGJ report charges.

    “Muslim immigrants or those perceived to be Muslims (such as members of the Sikh community) have also altered their physical appearance for fear of being profiled. Many immigrants have curtailed the extent to which they pray or worship publicly, and some have even changed their names – the very hallmark of their religious and cultural identity. Delays also affect the ability of naturalization applicants to receive lifesaving benefits, and in turn their access to healthcare and food.”

    Meanwhile, other advocacy groups are demanding an end to what they describe as DHS-sponsored anti-Muslim programs. One of them is known as NSEERS – the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System.

    For example, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has launched an advertising campaign called, “End the Shame of NSEERS.” Its objective is “to shed light on the continuing problems faced by thousands of individuals as a result of the discriminatory and poorly constructed and implemented ‘Special Registration Program.'”

    ADC’s ads are appearing this month in the Arab American News, the largest and oldest Arab American newspaper in the United States; in Washington Monthly Magazine, and in the program of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights 2007 Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Awards Dinner.

    In the ads, ADC calls on President George W. Bush, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to terminate the NSEERS program and address its negative residual effects.

    Launched by the Department of Justice in late 2002 and later transferred to the newly organized Department of Homeland Security, NSEERS requires male visitors to voluntarily comply with the program. But ADC says, “Failure to adequately publicize the program and to train immigration officers sufficiently led to poor implementation of NSEERS. Thousands of men who were required to register failed to do so – many, no doubt, due to lack of notice – and are now vulnerable to NSEERS penalties.”

    The organization charges that “Hundreds of individuals who had voluntarily appeared to register at Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices around the country were arrested and detained without reasonable justification.”

    The program was initially portrayed as an anti-terrorism measure that required male visitors to the US (from 25 Arab and Muslim countries and North Korea) to be fingerprinted, photographed and questioned by immigration officers. At the time, INS officials acknowledged they were ill-prepared to carry out this special call-in registration and acknowledged numerous shortcomings. However, despite DHS’s suspension of a few requirements in 2004, there were, and still are, criminal and civil penalties associated with failure to comply with NSEERS, including arrest, detention, monetary fines and/or removal from the United States.

    INS was renamed and became part of the Department of Homeland Security upon its founding after the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

    Civil liberties organizations have said that NSEERS was so poorly conceived and badly managed that it created chaos and fear. Trust between the immigrant community and law enforcement was severely strained, and in the end, there was no evidence that any terrorists were apprehended as a result of the effort.

    ADC has noted that “Approximately 84,000 Arabs and Muslims registered voluntarily, and subsequently about 14,000 were subjected to deportation hearings for voluntarily complying with the program. Yet, no registrants were charged with terrorism. In December 2004, the NSEERS program was modified by DHS, but many elements remain and are subject to abuse, including: departure registration; registration at ports of entry, as well as the potential for re-initiation of the call-in phase.”

    The organization says, “It seems clear that NSEERS has become just another tool used in immigration enforcement and law enforcement in general, which raises serious constitutional issues, as the program clearly discriminates on the basis of national origin.”

    ADC adds that several members of Congress, including key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and numerous civil libertarians and immigrant rights advocates, have taken issue with the constitutional legality of NSEERS discrimination based on national origin.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for The Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.