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When Haitham Idriss, a postdoc at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, crossed the border into Canada on a Friday night for a celebratory weekend in Montreal, he had every intention of returning and staying indefinitely. But fate intervened, in the form of rules that, although intended to help keep the U.S. secure, sometimes have the effect of keeping out those who wish to live and work peacefully in the United States.

Idriss came to the U.S. because he thought the country offered him opportunities that weren't available in his native U.K. He had spent 2 years studying and working at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and had "a reasonably satisfactory experience."

"I had made the decision to cross the Atlantic," Idriss wrote to me in an e-mail, "because I encountered difficulties establishing myself as a scientist in the U.K. and, even worse, was unable to continue my medical education. I blamed this on discrimination in the U.K. and decided I would be better off in the U.S."

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Already photographed and fingerprinted

Idriss is a frequent traveler; since entering the U.S. only 6 months before as a postdoc, he had already made two short visits back to the U.K. On the last of those visits he had been photographed and fingerprinted on reentering the U.S. According to the immigration official he spoke to, these extra steps were the result of a new law (probably US-VISIT) that applied to all visitors to the U.S. He complied without complaint. "After all," he jokes, "why not have my handsome face officially posted on the U.S. government computer system?"

While working in his Thomas Jefferson lab, Idriss uncovered a piece of information buried in the literature that explained an experimental result that had been puzzling him. He decided to reward himself with a weekend in Montreal.

On his third attempt to reenter the U.S.--following that weekend holiday in Montreal--problems arose. "I passed through the same New York borders I had passed through in September 2003, when I first arrived into the U.S." This time a customs official noticed on his passport that he was born in Lebanon and pulled him aside. "I was kept waiting in the customs building for almost 4 hours until all the checks were made, and then was directed to the immigration department. The officers there told me I needed to enroll in a special registration program called NSEERS."

NSEERS, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, known informally as the "special registration program," commenced exactly 1 year after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and since then hundreds of thousands of people have registered. NSEERS registrants are required to answer a series of questions under oath; according to immigration officials the process can take as much as 3 hours. Young male citizens and nationals of countries viewed as potential threats to the United States--mostly Arab and Muslim countries, although North Korea is also on the list--are required to register with the U.S. government at ports of entry or at designated registration centers across the country. Initially, NSEERS was announced as a broad program that would be rolled out in phases. But, to no one's surprise, the expansion ended after most of the Muslim nations had been covered.

As a U.K. citizen, Idriss never considered that he might be affected by "special registration." Yet according to the Immigration and Naturalization Act a "national" is "a person owing permanent allegiance to a state," and that depends on the citizenship laws of the individual countries, on legal precedent, and, to some extent, on how administrators and customs agents interpret the law. Apparently, Idriss qualifies because he was born in Lebanon and has never formally repudiated Lebanese citizenship.

The vast majority of U.S. visitors who have been asked to register under NSEERS have complied. Among registrants who are in the U.S. legally, few have reported any problems; yet NSEERS registration is also required for nonimmigrant visitors in the country illegally; and many of the illegals who registered were immediately arrested and deported. Failure to meet the many complex technical requirements, even as a result of an oversight or misunderstanding, can result in arrest, detention, and deportation. Even those who register late could be deported under the law.

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An article on the Web site of the American Immigration Law Foundation describes the experiences of Imad Daou, also from Lebanon, a young computer specialist who came to the U.S. to study information systems at Texas A&M University. Daou registered with NSEERS at Houston's Hobby airport, his port of entry, on his arrival in the U.S. Daou did very well at A&M, fell in love with Maria, a Mexican-American MBA student, and the two made plans to marry. He crossed the border into Mexico several times to visit with his future in-laws.

At the time, NSEERS registrants were required to re-register within 30 days, a requirement that has since been dropped. Immigration officials in Houston didn't inform Daou about this requirement, so he did not re-register. The first three times he returned from Mexico, he was questioned thoroughly but allowed to pass. The fourth time he crossed the border was the night before Thanksgiving. Traveling with his fiancé and her parents, he was detained at the border and placed on track for "expedited removal" from the United States. He wouldn't get a chance to plead his case before a judge. He was to be deported, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Daou spent December and January locked up in a detention center in Laredo, Texas, marrying Maria while he was still in detention. In February he was deported. Daou hopes to come back to the U.S. some day, but it will be at least 5 years before he will be allowed to return.

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Chose not to comply

Idriss, of course, knew none of this when he arrived at the border in March of this year. He had never given special registration a moment's thought. So he was surprised when he was informed by an immigration official that he was required to register.

Idriss chose not to comply. "The supervisor in charge advised me I had to register, else I would not be allowed into the U.S. I remarked that it is not acceptable to treat me different from other U.K. citizens because of my birth place. I had to make a decision at the time, and I decided to decline registering. I told the officer I wished to withdraw my passport in order to head back to the U.K. through Canada."

Although he objected to being singled out, Idriss's decision not to comply was as much a result of his uncertainty as an act of principled defiance. "The reason [I decided not to register] was that it was not explained to me exactly what registration entailed; I was told it would be explained to me as we go along, after I take an oath. Additionally, I was told I had to use a different entry port than that for nonregistrants coming into the U.S., the same port used by commercial trucks and not cars. Moreover, I understood I would be questioned every time I wanted to re-enter the U.S. after a visit abroad. This of course suggested to me [that] I was being singled out. I was photographed and fingerprinted and was given my passport and luggage back."

Idriss headed back into Canada, licking his wounds. He sent an e-mail to his group leader at Thomas Jefferson seeking assistance, and soon was told that, regrettably, there was nothing his advisor or the university could do. Report to the laboratory by 5 April, he was ordered, or his position would be terminated. He booked a flight back to the U.K.

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As a result of the NSEERS program, U.S. labs and employers have lost, in Daou and Idriss, at least two talented scientists. The toll is certainly much larger. Yet the meaning of Idriss's story is far from obvious. America's borders need protecting, and NSEERS is one way the U.S. government is attempting to do that job. Registration, it could be argued, is a relatively minor inconvenience for nonimmigrant visitors, considering the advantages that come from entering the U.S. An immigration attorney I spoke to suggested that, for Idriss, there was little practical risk, and that both Idriss and his employer are paying the price for an unnecessary act of defiance. "My first reaction when you told me this story," said the attorney, was "Hey, buddy, what's the big deal? Lots of people have done this already."

The attorney acknowledged, though, that this was a deeply personal decision, and that there are serious issues of civil liberties involved, and even some constitutional complaints. And, as Daou's experiences prove, the risks of NSEERS registration--indeed, of visiting the U.S. for work or for study--are not negligible if you're from one of the NSEERS countries.

As for Idriss, what began, in part, as a matter of principle has morphed into a sort of hard-nosed realism: "People like me are under no obligation to serve the U.S., just like the U.S. is under no obligation to employ me as a scientist. I offer skills I spent years acquiring from top Western institutes, and agreed to research in the U.S., sometimes for minimal salaries. But I am not prepared to offer this under such unrealistic conditions. I am sure many others would share the same sentiment."

It may soon be a moot point, as officials expect NSEERS to be replaced by another program, called US-VISIT. Under US-VISIT all visitors to the U.S. will be photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed on entry and exit. In contrast to NSEERS, US-VISIT registration will take place only on entry and exit, so complications like those Daou experienced ought to be rare. And, as long as it doesn't single anyone out on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, Idriss is likely to be okay with it. "I'm currently working in the U.K. and have made it clear to any potential U.S. employer that they have to ensure my entry into the U.S. without NSEERS or any similar discriminatory program if they want me to consider working with them."

Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers. @SciCareerEditor on Twitter