Yearly re-registration of Muslim visitors ends

The Dept. of Homeland Security has switched to a new entry/exit system. Re-registration is now for select individuals only.

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted Jan. 12, 2004

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The special registration program that forced several thousand physicians from countries with links to al Qaeda to go to U.S. immigration offices to be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed is undergoing a major overhaul.

As of Dec. 2, 2003, the Dept. of Homeland Security no longer requires all visitors from a list of mostly Muslim countries to return to designated immigration offices each year for registration. Instead, it will seek out individuals from this group that it considers security risks for re-registration interviews.

International medical graduates make up a quarter of the physicians in the United States. Homeland Security does not track the number of physicians registered, but at least 60,000 physicians in the United States went to medical school in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran or Syria -- all countries on the Homeland Security list.

Since stricter security measures were put into place, there have been numerous reports of foreign physicians who left the United States only to be blocked from returning to existing employment because of confusion over registration requirements or delays in obtaining security clearances. IMGs headed here to begin residencies encountered some of the same problems, and some missed out on residencies entirely because of visa delays.

Raana Akbar, MD, president of the Assn. of Pakistani Physicians of North America and an allergist and immunologist in Saginaw, Mich., said the Homeland Security decision was a good one. "I think people are very happy about this," she said of APPNA members. "[Special registration of Muslims] was a mistake from the very beginning, and this is a step in the right direction. The Muslim community all over America felt very discriminated against by this."

Pressure to review program

Carl Shusterman, Los Angeles immigration attorney and chair of the physicians committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said the move was in response to political pressure. He said Homeland Security had to review its security measures and registration process because it had created a year-long backlog in immigration cases and had not brought any terrorism convictions.

"The writing is on the wall that this program didn't do a whole lot of good for the war on terrorism," Shusterman said.

But Homeland Security responded that it had always intended to modify the entry/exit system and that the change in registration requirements was part of this process.

The registration program was originally established in November 2002, when what is now U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services announced that every adult man and some women from 26 mostly Muslim countries were to go to their immigration office and show they were in compliance with visa requirements. Once registered, each individual was to return each year to repeat the process.

Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney with Siskind, Susser, Haas & Devine in Memphis, Tenn., said there had been confusion in the immigrant community over the rule change. "There are some people out there dancing around thinking the whole system is over, but it's not."

While the re-registration part of the law has changed, the rules for travel are the same. Visitors from the 26 countries with al Qaeda ties must register their departures and re-entries with immigration when they cross U.S. borders. "If you don't register before you leave, you may not be able to come back," Shusterman said.

Homeland Security has not indicated how many people it will call in for re-registration. Policy watchers assume the number will be limited because of pressure on the department to eradicate the backlog of immigration cases.

Siskind said the way the law is written, the immigration department could still call in 80% to 90% of the people it was interviewing under the previous rules.

According to the American Medical Association, countries that produced the most IMGs now living in the United States and who are on the Homeland Security registration list are India, with 38,104 physicians, Pakistan with 8,758, Egypt with 4,491, Iran with 3,893 and Syria with 2,965.

As of Dec. 31, 2002, there were 198,703 IMGs in the United States.

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