(CNSNews.com) - Efforts by prominent Democrats to cut funding for a federal program that would keep tabs on visitors to the United States is "short-sighted" and ultimately harmful to national security, domestic security analysts said Monday.
Lawmakers are working on compromise legislation that would monitor the movements of visitors entering and leaving the United States after Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) added a last-minute amendment to the fiscal 2003 omnibus spending bill to de-fund the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).
"The amendment by Senators Kennedy and Clinton to the omnibus appropriations bill is disgustingly short-sighted," said Mike Scardaville, a policy analyst for homeland security with the Heritage Foundation.
In the wake of 9/11, the USA Patriot Act and the Border Security Act authorized the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to create an entry-exit monitoring system that requires the fingerprinting, photographing and registration of visitors entering the United States.
The Justice Department said the initiative eventually would enable the United States to track some 35 million visitors who enter the United States annually.
At least part of what happened on 9/11 was due to the fact that security officials hadn't kept track of who was coming into the country, analysts said. Terrorists who hijacked planes and flew them into buildings came in on student visas and simply disappeared into American society without even showing up for classes.
Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), condemned the amendment to de-fund the program, which he said is a powerful tool in the war on terrorism.
Justice Department officials currently are phasing in the first step of a program that will apply to all visitors, not just people from these few select countries, Mehlman said.
"Senator Kennedy has always been at the forefront of the effort to open the borders of this country as wide as he can get away with," he said.
The amendment, if included in the final version of the 2003 appropriations bill, would put NSEERS on hold, pending a House and Senate committee study of the program, analysts said.
In a Dec. 23 letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Kennedy said NSEERS unfairly targets some races.
"This special registration program appears to be a component of a second wave of roundups and detentions of Arab and Muslim males disguised as a perfunctory registration requirement," said the letter, which also was signed by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).
"Our nation still bears the scars of an earlier crisis when our government went too far by detaining Japanese, German, and Italian Americans based on their race, ethnicity, or national origin. We should not repeat these painful mistakes," it said.
Kennedy's objections to NSEERS did not arise solely from concerns about civil rights violations, however, a spokesman for Kennedy's office said.
"The amendment simply would delay funding while a number of questions were answered about the efficacy of the program. Some members up here on the Hill have concerns that this may not be the most efficient way to spend money on the war against terrorism," said Jim Manly, a spokesman for Kennedy.
Scardaville challenged assertions that the program promoted discrimination based on race.
"It's not trying to create a police state for people of certain ethnicities, which is the kind of allegations that have come out about this. I think that's more political pandering than anything else," he said.
Under NSEERS, visitors within the United States from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria were required to register with the INS by mid-December.
Visa holders from "other countries whom the State Department and the INS determine to be an elevated national security risk," including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen had to register by Jan. 10.
Pakistani and Saudi Arabian visitors currently in the United States must register by Feb. 21.
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