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Story highlights

NSEERS, used to register mostly Muslim and Arab men after 9/11, is still in place but not used

Groups fear President-elect Trump will revive the program, so are asking Obama to kill it

(CNN) —  

Nearly 200 organizations concerned that President-elect Donald Trump may revive the National Security Exit-Entry Registration System, known as NSEERS, once used to register and track mostly Arabs and Muslims, are asking President Barack Obama to abolish the program before he leaves office.

In a letter delivered to the Obama administration on Monday, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, or ADC, blasted NSEERS for being “ineffective as a counterterrorism tool” and causing “tremendous harm” to immigrant communities. The letter was signed by 197 other organizations, including the National Council of La Raza, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

NSEERS, sometimes called “Special Registration,” was a program for registering and monitoring noncitizen visa holders – such as students, workers and tourists – that President George W. Bush’s administration enacted a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The program affected males 16 years of age or older from 25 countries. With the exception of North Korea, all the countries on the list were Arab or had majority Muslim populations.

In all, the program registered and monitored more than 80,000 men and boys, according to a 2012 report by Penn State Law and Rights Working Group, a coalition of local, state and national rights organizations. More than 13,000 of those registrants were placed in deportation proceedings, the report added.

Proponents of NSEERS said it was necessary to identify and capture terrorists who might enter the country on false pretenses or who were already living in the United States.

Critics said it disproportionately targeted Arabs and Muslims, caused widespread fear within those communities and needlessly punished immigrants. “Families were torn apart, small businesses in immigrant neighborhoods closed their doors, and students discarded their educational aspirations,” ADC said in its letter.

By 2011, nearly a decade after the program was enacted, NSEERS had not resulted in a single terrorism conviction. The Obama administration suspended the program by taking all 25 countries off its list, but left its primary structure intact.

Trump’s transition team raised eyebrows last week when sources familiar with its plans said the President-elect planned to create a program similar to NSEERS.

A source who spoke to CNN said the program Trump is considering would register and track foreign visitors from high-risk countries, including but not limited to Muslims.

When asked about a complete ban on Muslims, an idea floated by Trump during the campaign, the source said, “It’s something we’re prepared for, but it’s unlikely,” before adding “all options are on the table.”

Trump spokesman Jason Miller denied that Muslims would be the target of a new program.

“President-elect Trump has never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion, and to imply otherwise is completely false,” Miller said. “The national registry of foreign visitors from countries with high terrorism activity that was in place during the Bush and Obama administrations gave intelligence and law enforcement communities additional tools to keep our country safe, but the President-elect plans on releasing his own vetting policies after he is sworn in.”

However, in November of last year, there was a very messy day or so where Trump issued a number of contradictory statements about his thoughts on a database of Muslim people and keeping such communities under surveillance. In the span of roughly 24 hours, Trump kept the door open to a Muslim database, then said he was for implementing a Muslim database, then denied ever being asked a question about such a database. He capped it off by tweeting that he “didn’t suggest a database,” but he didn’t deny supporting one either.

Opinion: What Trump camp gets wrong on registry

News of an NSEERS revival prompted ADC, which has long lobbied against the program, to pen the letter calling on Obama to dismantle what’s left of its framework before leaving office.

“As organizations that represent diverse communities and that are committed to civil and immigrant rights, we firmly believe that removal of the NSEERS framework is a necessary imperative,” the letter said. “We ask the administration to immediately take steps to remove the regulatory structure of NSEERS and stop any future use of the program.”

CNN’s Pamela Brown contributed to this report.