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Obama administration dismantling visitor registry before Donald Trump revives it

The Obama administration is dismantling a dormant national registry program for visitors from countries with active terrorist groups — a program that President-elect Donald Trump has suggested he is considering resurrecting.

The registry, created after the attacks of September 11, 2001+ , has not been in use since 2011, so the move is largely symbolic and appeared to be aimed at distancing the departing administration from any effort by the new president to revive the program, known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS.

Asked Wednesday, in the aftermath of the Berlin attack+ , whether he still intended to set up a registry for Muslims and impose a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants+ , Trump said in Florida, “You know my plans.” Hours later, a spokesman said Trump was not reaffirming his earlier calls for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries but was referring to his more recent clarification that he would bar people from countries with a history of Islamist extremism.

The move by the White House to formally end the registry is among the actions being taken in the final weeks of the administration that could prevent, or at least slow, what Democrats fear may be a swift rollback of President Barack Obama’s efforts on immigration and climate change.

A spokesman for Trump did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Among the Republican proponents of the registry program is Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and a member of Trump’s transition team. Kobach, an anti-immigration hard-liner, helped to devise the program while at the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration.

Last month, before a meeting with Trump, Kobach was photographed with a document of first-year proposals that included, under the rubric “Bar the Entry of Potential Terrorists,” a proposal to reintroduce the registry program.

That information, as well as Trump’s comments on the campaign trail, prompted Democratic lawmakers, mayors from cities with large foreign-born populations and some business leaders in Silicon Valley to call on Obama to undo the legal framework that undergirds the program.

That can be done with a rule change. The Department of Homeland Security submitted such a rule change for public posting Thursday morning, and it is set to be published in the federal registry Friday.

“DHS ceased use of NSEERS more than five years ago, after it was determined the program was redundant, inefficient and provided no increase in security,” Neema Hakim, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement. The program is “not only obsolete” and “outdated,” but diverts personnel and resources from other areas that are seen as more effective, the statement said.

Some experts say there is no need for a registry.

Officials in the agency have long believed that the program has outlived its usefulness. A number of newer programs, developed in the years since the NSEERS system was put into place, capture a vast amount of information that allows customs officers to flag for additional questioning people from certain countries or those with unusual travel itineraries.

A 2012 report by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security said that since 2006, senior officials in the agency had been calling for the termination of the program, and in the report, the inspector general recommended that it be ended. “Information obtained from fingerprints, flight manifests, travel and identification documents and intelligence sources is more valuable in determining who poses a potential national security risk,” the report said, citing customs and border control officers.

“Leaving the regulatory structure of the NSEERS program in place provides no discernible public benefit,” the report said.

The regulations that are being undone date to 1991, at the time of the first gulf war, when immigration authorities began requiring the registration and fingerprinting of certain nonimmigrant travelers entering the United States from Iraq and Kuwait. The authorities removed the requirements for those countries two years later but retained provisions preserving the attorney general’s power to compel the same information from nonimmigrants from specific countries.

In 2002, the federal government began the program and required special registration from those arriving from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria. By 2003, the list had expanded to 25 countries, most with majority Muslim populations and most in Africa and the Middle East.

A decade after the September 11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security, which had taken over the program, said it had stopped registering arrivals from the designated countries and removed all countries from the list. But the move left in place the regulations that allowed for it to be restarted.

In recent days, dozens of Democratic officials in Washington, as well as the New York state attorney general, Eric T Schneiderman, have called for the regulations to be rescinded.

“No known terrorism convictions have resulted from the program,” read a joint letter, dated Dec. 1, from more than 50 Democratic members of the House of Representatives. Schneiderman, a Democrat and a vocal opponent of Trump, said the program was “an affront to our core American values of pluralism and equal justice under law.”

Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Apple are among several technology companies that have publicly stated that they would not assist the new administration in developing any program that would collect information that could be used by the government to track immigrants from Muslim countries.

The technology companies took action after thousands of Silicon Valley engineers signed a pledge saying they stood in solidarity with Muslim Americans and immigrants and would not use their skills for the “new administration’s proposed data-collection policies.”

“We refuse to build a database of people based on their constitutionally protected religious beliefs,” the engineers said in a statement.

 Hakim, in his statement, said the regulations had long since been replaced by automated systems and programs that were not in place at the start of the registry program — which required in-person interviews by federal agents and targeted specific countries.
 The new tools are “far better equipped to face the evolving landscape of international terrorism,” he said. Those programs include an automated system for collecting and storing biometric data such as fingerprints from nearly all people entering the country.
The changes are set to take effect immediately after they are published Friday.

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