WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department said Monday it would require all noncitizens to report changes of address within 10 days of moving or risk financial penalties, jail and even deportation.
The plan, which relies on a long-neglected 50-year-old law, would apply to 10 million people older than 14 who are living in the United States legally but not as American citizens. The new policy also covers illegal immigrants -- said to number 8 million to 9 million nationally -- but few are expected to step forward.
The announcement was part of a continuing effort by the federal government to overhaul the lax and disorganized system of tracking foreign visitors and residents that had long been in effect before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
If the new plan addressed a widespread public concern, it also stirred growing anxieties among immigrants that noncitizens were being targeted for tough law enforcement measures unrelated to terrorism.
Moreover, the announcement came just days after the Justice Department disclosed a precedent-setting agreement with Florida for local police to play a greater role in enforcing immigration laws to protect national security.
"To put somebody in deportation proceedings for failing to report a change of address is like using a nuclear bomb to kill a fly," said Denyse Sabagh, an immigration lawyer in Washington. "It's definitely punitive."
In a statement, Justice Department officials described the plan as "an important step to enhance border security" and an attempt to address the problem of noncitizens avoiding removal from this country by leaving INS officials in the dark about their whereabouts.
The INS will update nearly three dozen forms used by immigrants to notify them of the requirements, officials said.
'More things to lose'
Others wondered whether the beleaguered Immigration and Naturalization Service was prepared to take on such a demanding and sensitive responsibility. The INS is often criticized for losing paperwork or sending notices to the wrong address -- miscues that can greatly complicate legal proceedings involving immigrants.
The new plan merely gives the INS "more things to lose," said Pedro Casillas of Los Angeles, who immigrated from Mexico on a work visa. He said some immigrants so distrust the INS that they would not register, even if it meant risking deportation.
"It's breathtaking," said Judy Golub, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "In the guise of making us safer, they're not fixing the problem. All this system does is make it easier for people to be charged with violating the law, and the consequences of violating the law are very clear."
The new policy comes as the INS and U.S. colleges race to complete a computerized system to monitor foreign students by next year. In addition, the INS is working on a long-awaited plan to record all foreign entries and exits across U.S. borders.
In the statement Monday, Justice Department officials sought to emphasize that the change-of-address rule had been on the books for half a century and is a criminal offense.
"Unfortunately, far too many fail to comply with this existing requirement," the Justice Department statement said, adding that the lack of information "impairs the INS' ability" to conduct deportation proceedings in many cases, and may also interfere with the agency's success in informing some immigrants of benefits they qualify for.
The policy will apply to noncitizens ages 15 and older -- some 10 million people, including legal noncitizens and refugees, according to census data. Some viewed the plan as a legitimate effort by the government to begin to get a handle on the nation's fast-changing and highly mobile immigrant population.
"The government of the United States should know where aliens are residing in the United States, who they are, and how may of them there are," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist group in Washington. "And the fact is we don't."
At the same time, Krikorian said that the new requirement is politically easier for the Bush administration to impose than a sharp escalation in sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.
"This is a way to respond to security concerns without alienating important interests in the Republican Party," he said.
The announcement closely follows another tradition-breaking enforcement plan by the Justice Department, which on Friday disclosed that it had reached an accord with Florida for "a small and select group" of local police to enforce immigration laws in concert with the INS, in cases involving terrorism and national security issues.
Congress in 1996 said the Justice Department could establish such arrangements with individual states, but the strategy sparked criticism among some major urban police departments.