The measure, introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and added to the bill with the support of at least two Democrats, would require additional review for undocumented immigrants applying for legal status who are from “a region or country known to pose a threat, or that contains groups or organizations that pose a threat, to the national security of the United States.” Under the underlining bill, all undocumented immigrations are required to undergo three separate background checks before obtaining legal status. In defending his amendment during the Senate Judiciary Committee mark-up on Monday, Graham argued for an additional screening from regions of the world “where terrorists operate.”
“I mean, it’s pretty clear what I’m trying to do,” Graham said. “I’m trying to make sure that in addition to looking at your criminal background, when you adjust status, that if there are certain parts of the world or countries — like Yemen — that you’re adjusting from, I want to know a little more about you, given the world we live in.”
Under the provisions of the amendment, the Secretary of Homeland Security would have the broad authority to target any “alien or alien dependent spouse or child” from any region or country that they deem, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to house threats to the United States for additional scrutiny before becoming citizens. “I’m not dictating that [the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State] have to pick any region or country over the other,” Graham said, attempting to deflect criticisms that the amendment focuses specifically on the Middle East.
But a coalition of civil rights groups disagreed with Graham’s approach, arguing that the measure was similar to the now-defunct National Security Entry-Exit System (NSEERS), a largely ineffective program set up under the the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. As part of the program, immigrants from twenty-four Muslim majority countries were forced to register into the system, which tracked their entry and exit from the country. The coalition — including the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, Arab American Institute, and National Council of La Raza — signed onto a letter addressed to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to condemn the amendment as being the NSEERS reborn:
Graham amendment #3 seems to do little more than revive the failed approach taken by the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), in which nonimmigrants from countries designated as national security concerns were subject to special screening. NSEERS was widely discredited, as it resulted in unjust racial and ethnic profiling of individuals from mainly Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities. While NSEERS resulted in the detention and deportation of thousands of people, it cost $10 million annually and failed to result in any successful counter-terrorism prosecutions. The Department’s Inspector General reported that the program was inefficient and burdensome. There is no reason to believe that the approach in Graham amendment #3 would be any more successful in rooting out national security threats.
The Obama administration shuttered most of the NSEER’s functions in 2011, leaving the program indefinitely suspended. Graham’s amendment is less explicit than the NSEERS was, but would still place into law the ability for the government to racially profile potential citizens. During debate, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) suggested that a better system should be based on intelligence and law enforcement concerns rather than nation of origin, a suggestion Graham denied was necessary.
Graham’s amendment passed by voice vote and was inserted into the overarching bill with support from Sens. Al Franken (D-MN) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who announced they would back the measure. The overarching bill itself was voted out of committee last night, propelling it to the Senate floor where an effort to remove Graham’s language is likely to take shape.