Mohammed Al-Dahoud is one of many Muslim students around the nation dealing with the paranoia of being deported.
As a Jordanian, Al-Dahoud, like other foreign nationals from a selected list of predominantly Muslim countries, is required to register with the federal government.
He was able to register on time and avoid deportation, but Al-Dahoud said he fears that some students may not be aware of the rules regarding the program or will become afraid of deportation because of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program.
“It brings stress and fear into your life,” Al-Dahoud said. “I had at least three or four dreams about ‘What is the date? Did it pass?’ I had to get up from bed and check the Web site. I was paranoid.”
In response to students’ fears about NSEERS, student body president Omar Khan and vice president Ryan Morris have initiated a campaign to convince the federal government that the enforcement of NSEERS is unjust. The pair seeks to gain USF administration and state support to have NSEERS procedures overturned.
“Some students came up to me during the campaign and told me about how a professor singled out students in his classroom and told them they had to register with the government,” Khan said. “Since then we have done our research and looked into NSEERS.”
Al-Dahoud, one of the students who approached Khan, was a member of the Muslim Student Association at USF before he graduated. He talked to a lot of people within the organization that got into trouble with NSEERS.
One student, Abdullah Hatahet, now a USF graduate, was detained and faced deportation back to Syria for not registering in time. Hatahet missed the deadline by one day because he was working on a final project the night before during exam week.
“(Hatahet) was freaked out about it,” Al-Dahoud said. “He wasn’t trying to hide.”
Khan’s initial intention was to raise awareness of the program among students. But when he took office, Khan said he realized the importance of the issue.
“We want all students to be aware, because the regular students (who are not singled out) would be the first to help out,” Khan said. “We want to unify all students — not just those in the Muslim Student Association.”
NSEERS was implemented a year after the Sept. 11 attacks to track and register male foreign nationals over the age of 16 from the following countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Subsequently, several more countries have been added to the list.
After the program was implemented, Khan said one student left voluntarily, and a few others have been detained or feared detention because of difficulties meeting the registration deadlines. USF currently has about 2,200 international students.
“We do not want students to be in fear,” Khan said. “We want them (to) focus on USF and school.”
Foreign registration requirements, in effect since 1952, were created to help keep track of foreign nationals entering the United States. But since the attacks, NSEERS singles out legal aliens from the aforementioned list of countries to attend a special registration where they are fingerprinted and interviewed by Department of Homeland Security immigration officials.
After registering for the first time, students from those countries must then re-register every year. If students leave the United States or have a change of address, they must report that as well.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at USF, said the primary reason for the implementation of NSEERS was security.
“Sept. 11 raised a red flag on certain countries,” MacManus said. “The government found fault lines of carrying out and enforcing the law.”
MacManus said government investigation into how student visas were being abused added to the importance of the program.
But Khan says he thinks NSEERS subjects male Muslim students to differential treatment. He added that out of the 27 countries listed on the NSEERS list, USF has students from 22 of the countries enrolled.
“Even though the rules only require men to register, it can be argued that women, who are not required to register, may be discouraged from entering the U.S. university system if their brothers or other male relatives cannot,” Khan said.
NSEERS vs. SEVIS
Since August, both Khan and Morris have been lobbying at USF and around the state against NSEERS. They have also been heavily emphasizing the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
Khan said SEVIS, which was implemented last year and required full national compliance by Aug. 1, treats all students equally.
Also, Khan said with SEVIS in place he wonders why NSEERS is even needed.
“SEVIS is just more morally and fiscally responsible,” he said.
SEVIS is an Internet-based system used to transmit information to the Department of Homeland Security regarding foreign students, exchange visitors pursuing academics and researchers. Both programs are linked to the Department of Homeland Security.
International undergraduate students entering the United States on an F-1 visa are required to maintain 12 credit hours per semester. If a student drops below that mark, the program notifies the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) department at USF. If a student changes his or her major, USF is required to make that change and update the information on the system so the Department of Homeland Security is notified.
David Austell, director of the ISSS department, works with students to inform them on both SEVIS and NSEERS. He said the difference between the two is the data they require.
“SEVIS is less invasive then NSEERS is,” he said. “NSEERS requires students to answer more personal questions that could be more intimidating to some because of the nature of our times.”
ISSS has focused on keeping students informed of special registration deadlines.
“We have tried to get the word out,” Austell said. “We take this information very seriously and assist the students with information that changes rapidly.”
Austell said when students do complain, it isn’t about SEVIS but NSEERS.
“(NSEERS) is intimidating for certain people,” Austell said.
Both programs, Austell said, ultimately do not affect students who adhere to their visa requirements. The increased vigilance at airports and other ports of entry, however, has prompted ISSS to advise students to consult with the department before making any decisions to travel abroad.
“We try to meet everyone before leaving the United States. Because of the updates, we want to give them good, solid information,” he said.
Trying to gain support
As part of their campaign, Khan and Morris organized information packets for the SG senate and Florida Student Association (FSA). The senate, while skeptical, Khan says, about trying to lobby a national and federal issue, has allocated $1,400 to him and Morris to travel to Washington, D.C. if they are able to lobby or testify before the federal government.
In addition, Khan and Morris met with USF President Judy Genshaft seeking support and to inform her of their goal.
“She gave us her full support; however, she told us that she wants us to keep students informed about NSEERS and bring awareness to them,” Khan said. Ryan Caruso, SG senate president, said the senate is still trying to get more facts and figures on NSEERS but support Khan and Morris.
“We want to solely educate the student body about this issue, not just international students but the student body as a whole,” Caruso said. “We want to help them out. We are going to make it our mission to educate and make all the students aware of NSEERS.”
Having gained support from the administration and the senate, Khan then took the issue and concerns to the FSA, an organization that represents all student governments when lobbying the state and federal governments on student issues. Khan addressed the FSA in August, bringing Al-Dahoud to provide first-hand testimony about the anxieties NSEERS has induced in some international students.
“This is a two-tier approach. We want to bring awareness to students and unite everyone and we want to try to lobby for a change,” he said.
Scott Ross, executive director of FSA, said he and Khan are preparing a news release that will state the position of FSA on NSEERS.
The news release, which is scheduled to be released in the coming week, states that the FSA board “will not support unnecessary discrimination against students,” Ross said.
“The info that Omar and Ryan showed us at the meeting is that NSEERS ran a risk of discriminating against students,” Ross said. “We applaud his efforts, and he’s definitely passionate about it.”
If Khan and Morris do get the opportunity to travel to D.C., Ross said the FSA would support them.
Maxine Tuchman, SG president at New College, located in Sarasota, who was present when Khan and Morris went before the FSA, said she believes it is a good cause for which to fight.
“It’s very impressive that Omar is bringing out an issue that students do not know much about and that a lot of students do not want to touch,” Tuchman said. “A lot more people have become aware of NSEERS because of him.”
Like Khan, Al-Dahoud said he thinks that SEVIS should be the universal tracking system.
“The school is being able to deal with the issues and help us,” Al-Dahoud said. “With NSEERS we have to go directly through the federal government. It takes time. SEVIS already records everything.”
Al-Dahoud said the tracking system needs to treat people equally and not burden students with worries.
“If I had not registered and kept checking the Web site, I probably wouldn’t have been able to graduate and my family would be in danger,” he said. “People aren’t coming to United States to seek degrees if there is fear. Why would they want that headache?”
The plan of action
So, what is next? Khan and Morris will present the FSA news release to all Florida universities and other state universities such as Georgetown and University of Michigan.
“We are going to send out the (news) release and accumulate awareness,” Khan said.
Currently no bill exists that will allow them to go to D.C. to lobby, but Khan said he has received support from several congressmen.
“Rep. John Conyers in Michigan sent us a letter saying that he would ‘fully support an initiative on the part of FSA,'” Khan said.
Khan’s case is further bolstered by criticism of NSEERS from groups including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the National Education Association, as well as several other congressmen who have condemned NSEERS as racially, ethically and politically biased.
Austell said he gives Khan and Morris credit for their efforts against NSEERS.
“I think Omar and Ryan show a strong moral sense and fairness on their part,” Austell said. “They show fair treatment under the law.”
While waiting for an invitation to D.C., Khan said he will continue to strive for a possible overturning of NSEERS while getting the awareness out.
“We are trying to help the students,” Khan said. “My heart and soul are in this to try (to) lobby. If there is a road, there is a way.”