By Alex Salkever Last Dec. 16, immigration and local police detained around 550 Middle Easterners lacking Green Cards or long-term visas. The Immigration & Naturalization Service had ordered them to report to government offices in Orange, San Diego, and Los Angeles counties as part of the new National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). Launched in 2002 on the first anniversary of September 11, NSEERS mandates the fingerprinting of visitors the INS thinks could be national-security risks. When the unsuspecting registrants showed up, the government nabbed them.
The INS ploy may have been an efficient way to both round up the usual suspects and issue a warning to potential wrongdoers from the Muslim world. But it may not have been a smart one. Civil libertarians, Arab Americans, and Muslims were outraged by the sort of treatment they associate with authoritarian regimes, not Western democracies. After a few days of background checks, the INS released most of the detainees.
By then, uncertainty had left their families shaken. Images of spouses wailing outside INS centers rocketed around the globe. The result was a public-relations nightmare that, far from receding, has continued to swell as the INS has expanded from 20 to 25 the number of countries on its mandatory registration list. Of those nations, 23 are predominantly Muslim, and three -- Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia -- are American allies.
CRUDE TRAP. No one is faulting the government for its desire to make the country more secure. NSEERS arose from fears that terrorists might be in the country on tourist or student visas -- as were many of the September 11 terrorists. What's shocking, however, is the faulty logic behind the INS trap. Far from making Americans safer, this type of behavior undermines U.S. security on multiple levels. Not only should the INS not repeat such actions, it needs to assure those whom it wants to register that it has learned its lesson.
The INS has plenty of good reasons to issue a mea culpa. For one thing, expecting avowed terrorists to walk into so crude a trap isn't realistic. True, the authorities in California did find a few miscreants, including a child-molester and others with pending felony warrants. But most terrorists understand that turning themselves in to the INS under any circumstances is probably unwise.
What Uncle Sam seems to have overlooked is that the vast majority of honest people among those who came to register might have represented a far more valuable asset, if only the INS had avoided alienating them (though the agency notes that it released on bail most of those it detained). With their cultural sensibilities and understanding of Farsi and Arabic, they are better able to spot signs of terrorist activity than some Arabist desk jockey buried by reams of mostly meaningless communications intercepts.
WRONG MESSAGE. Moreover, arresting innocent Middle Easterners practically ensures that, in the future, far fewer will heed the call to check into their nearest INS cell block. Illegal immigrants from Mexico have learned that lesson, turning themselves in only when offered amnesty. The INS had a chance to reduce the size of the haystack it must search for terrorists but, at least for the moment, it seems to have blown that opportunity.
Perhaps the most damaging consequence of those mass arrests is that they send precisely the wrong message to the Muslim world, evoking the U.S.'s shameful treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. This specter of racism plays into the hands of Muslim extremists, who regularly use inflammatory rhetoric to frame terrorism as a conflict of Islam vs. the U.S. and Israel, rather than as murderous fundamentalists vs. the West. Stunts such as the INS's make it harder for moderates in the Middle East to exert much influence.
The INS and Justice Dept. acted within the letter of the law in California. And Justice spokesman Jorge Martinez points out that despite the controversy, citizens of 148 countries have now registered. Since the inception of NSEERS, the INS has stopped 233 people who were wanted for crimes, are suspected terrorists, had been deported and banned from returning, or were otherwise ineligible for entry. During an earlier pilot program in the first half of 2002, the INS used fingerprint matches to arrest more than 2,000 foreign felons. In the Dec. 16 operation, however, the INS nabbed only a handful of criminals. The agency also notes that most European countries have even more stringent registration procedures for visitors.
That said, perceptions are often as important as facts in the tense relationship between the U.S. and Muslim nations. Heavy-handed tactics can worsen America's image abroad, as well as poison potentially fruitful relationships with U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern ancestry. In its latest round of required registrations, held on Jan. 10, the INS appears to have shown more sensitivity to those who presented themselves. Let's hope the agency now understands that it can get what it wants while earning the respect of those who are under suspicion only because of where they were born. Salkever is BusinessWeek Online's technology editor