New FBI biometric database will help feds nab undocumented immigrants

Enhanced identification system will support Homeland Security's controversial Secure Communities program.

The federal government plans to use an upgraded FBI biometric database to identify dangerous undocumented immigrants for possible deportation more quickly and accurately, according to internal agency documents.

The FBI is in the process of transitioning from its existing Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System to the Next -Generation Identification system in part to better support a controversial immigrant fingerprinting program run by the Homeland Security Department, the materials state. Under the program, called Secure Communities, DHS officials check the digital prints of people booked by local law enforcement agencies against Homeland Security's IDENT biometric database to see if they are in the United States illegally. They then extradite the most violent aliens, such as convicted murderers and rapists. Critics of Secure Communities say it nabs as many immigrants as possible, regardless of the severity of the crime.

A July 6 FBI internal fact sheet that an immigrants rights coalition obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, says, "IDENT/IAFIS interoperability under Secure Communities is part of a larger FBI/[Criminal Justice Information Services] Next-Generation Identification initiative," adding that "[Secure Communities] is the first opportunity for [law enforcement agencies] to fully and accurately identify suspects in their custody and gives them a head start on NGI."

The Justice Department reported to the White House in its fiscal 2011 budget justification that NGI will "be interoperable with existing systems, such as the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT)." The system will be able to respond to terrorist fingerprint queries within 10 seconds, Justice officials noted.

As of March, the new system was handling fingerprints for more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies and other authorized criminal justice partners 24 hours a day, according to the FBI's website. In Houston, it now takes police less than 20 seconds to compare the prints of a person they stop on the road to the 2 million sets stored in the database of terrorists, sex offenders and others. When finished, NGI should be able to process prints more accurately, generating fewer false positives, or wrong matches, according to FBI officials.

It is unclear when the enhanced FBI system will begin providing information to Homeland Security, or if the collaboration already has begun. The FBI's website describes NGI as "an incremental replacement" of the old fingerprinting system.

When asked whether NGI will be more effective than the old system at removing only aliens who pose a serious threat, FBI officials said in a statement, "Congress enacted legislation to ensure that the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and the Department of Homeland Security's automated biometric identification system are interoperable and the criminal and immigration information, contained therein, is accessible to and shared among other local, state, tribal, federal and international law enforcement agencies."

Local law enforcement agencies send fingerprints to the FBI on a voluntary basis, the statement added. Once criminal history information is in IAFIS, it becomes part of a system that is required by law to synch with DHS' IDENT, bureau officials noted. Various post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism measures, including the Patriot Act and the Enhanced Border Security Act, ordered that the two systems be compatible. Secure Communities is an outgrowth of this mandatory information sharing, the statement said.

FBI officials directed a reporter to the agency's website for additional information on NGI.

During the next few years, the FBI will enter more biometric markers into NGI to discern identities through facial recognition technology, iris scans and possibly vocal recordings, according to the site.

DHS officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, which operates the IDENT database, referred all questions associated with interaction between NGI and IDENT or Secure Communities to the FBI. The FBI referred questions about using NGI for immigration enforcement to DHS.

"It seems like they don't really want anyone to understand it," said Sunita Patel, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the groups that filed the FOIA request. "It's very troubling and it makes me even more suspicious about what they are trying to do with the two systems when they won't answer basic questions."

When asked if the precision of the new system has the potential to ensure authorities do not deport harmless individuals, Patel said policies control which immigrants can stay, not the technology.

Some civil liberties groups are concerned that the scope of the database could make it a target for identity thieves and stalkers.

They also note that quicker responses from the FBI will not resolve long-standing errors within DHS' database. "Faster processing times will not correct the problem and [will] probably make it worse," Patel said.

An April report from DHS acting Inspector General Charles K. Edwards found that some biometrics collected by the Transportation Security Administration and other DHS agencies are not automatically entered into IDENT.

Homeland Security officials, in responding to a draft report, said that a 2007 memo directed ICE, TSA, US-VISIT, Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services all to use the same system -- IDENT -- for gathering fingerprints. The inspector general found this action suitable and is monitoring the accumulation of data.

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