DHS Kills Dreaded Biometric Deportation Program

Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock.com

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… and replaces it with a new controversial biometric deportation program.

The Department of Homeland Security will abandon a controversial deportation program that relied on biometric identification -- and replace it with a more targeted extradition approach.

The substitution is part of broad Obama administration executive action to fix the immigration system.

In the past, under the Secure Communities program, immigration authorities would cross-check foreigners’ fingerprints against prints in the FBI's criminal database to identify criminals. Critics bemoaned the process for invading privacy, breaking up families and extraditing mistakenly-arrested innocent people.

The new approach, called the Priority Enforcement Program, shares the same databases and the same goal -- removing the most dangerous immigrants, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. However, the replacement narrows the scope of criminal activities that would be grounds for deportation, ICE officials said.  

To trigger enforcement proceedings, an immigrant would have to turn up in FBI’s database as a suspected terrorist, gang member, convicted felon or someone convicted of at least three misdemeanors other than minor traffic violations. Immigrants listed as guilty of domestic violence, drug trafficking and those who have committed certain other significant misdemeanors will be removed. 

In a Nov. 20 memoDHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said he would "discontinue Secure Communities" in favor of "a program that will continue to rely on fingerprint-based biometric data submitted during bookings" by local police for FBI criminal background checks.  

Of immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally, only those who pose a "demonstrable risk to national security" or who fit into one of the specific criminal categories will be subject to deportation, he said. 

But immigration rights groups are unconvinced the new program is free of the biases they say plagued Secure Communities. The new program will also still amass -- and possibly expose -- digital personal data, including potentially iris scans and facial recognition images, they say.

"The reforms do nothing to address the potential for pretextual arrests, people's information continues to be shared with ICE regardless of whether they are ever convicted of, or even charged with, a crime," said Jessica Karp Bansal, staff attorney for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Both programs are "based on expansive, pre-conviction collection of biometrics from citizens and non-citizens alike." 

There is hope among activists the administration will release details that alleviate concerns. But there is also the recollection that Secure Communities "was characterized by deception and misinformation, so we are taking everything we hear from DHS at this point with several grains of salt," Bansal said. 

Ending Secure Communities is intended to focus immigration enforcement on the most serious criminals, while the government gets a handle on the 11 million immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally.

President Barack Obama last week used presidential powers to authorize immigration reforms, after Congress failed to pass a comprehensive overhaul. Other parts of his agenda include protecting about 5 million illegal immigrants by expanding programs that delay deportation of parents of U.S. citizens or permanent-resident children, as well as undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

Secure Communities grew out of various congressional actions. Post-Sept. 11, 2011, antiterrorism laws, such as the Enhanced Border Security Act, mandated immigration authorities have access to FBI databases for probing legal status. 

A day after Obama announced the discontinuation of Secure Communities, some House Republicans condemned the termination of what they characterized as an effective partnership between local law enforcement and ICE.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the program has been used to remove nearly 400,000 convicted criminal immigrants.

"Those identified under the program are often repeat offenders and have committed crimes such as theft, assault, drunk and drugged driving, and even murder," he said in a statement. “The president cannot claim that he will prioritize deportation of felons while scrapping a successful program designed to do just that.”

(Image via Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock.com)