Sharing of info draws praise
By Alfonso Chardy
The Miami Herald, December 13, 2009
Federal immigration officials in Miami remember the date and time well: March 18, 9:31 p.m.
That was the day they scored one of their biggest catches under a year-old program to identify deportable foreign criminals the moment they're booked into local jails.
It involved a Bahamian man arrested on a traffic-violation warrant by North Miami Beach police. When the suspect was booked at the Miami-Dade County jail, federal and local law-enforcement authorities quickly learned he was a convicted felon with a long criminal record as a notorious gang member and an illegal immigrant. The man now faces deportation.
Though arrests of foreign criminal convicts by immigration authorities are not new, the way the Bahamian was discovered was novel. Thanks to the federal Secure Communities program, the suspect's immigration status and record popped up on a federal Homeland Security database now linked to computers at booking centers of certain local jails nationwide. So whenever a suspect is booked, the fingerprints are scanned and submitted electronically to the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies.
In the year since the booking-facility identification program has been active, more than 111,000 foreign suspects and convicts have been identified — including 11,000 “Level 1'' offenders, such as murderers and rapists, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Miami spokeswoman Nicole Navas.
`Closed that Gap'
Though some immigrant-rights activists have expressed concerns, others welcome it.
“People serving time have not been identified and then were released back into the community,'' James W. Ziglar, former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) commissioner and now senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said during a recent news conference in Washington. “This program has closed that gap. It's a very effective program.''
Before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the identification of foreign nationals convicted of crimes was left largely in the hands of INS.
After the attacks, the INS widened the net by adding the immigration records of hundreds of thousands of wanted immigrants to a federal criminal database that local law-enforcement officers check during routine traffic stops.
After INS functions were folded into the Department of Homeland Security, ICE has been adding new ways to detect foreign criminal convicts and other foreign nationals in violation of immigration laws.
The program that identified the Bahamian, Secure Communities, was added to ICE's tool kit a year ago — giving officers additional means to run a suspect's background beyond traffic stops or encounters with immigration officers at airports, land ports of entry, border regions and border-area highway checkpoints.
Secure Communities brings immigration records into booking centers where suspects are booked into county jails.
Some immigrant-rights advocates have voiced concerns about the program because it may not distinguish between foreign nationals convicted of a crime and those charged with a crime.
Generally, foreign nationals in the United States should not be marked for deportation unless they have been convicted of a crime or are illegally in the country.
When people in custody are brought to the jail's booking area, officers working for agencies involved in Secure Communities check suspects' fingerprints against Homeland Security databases such as the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program (US-VISIT), and the Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) — in addition to other databases routinely consulted following an arrest.
The fingerprint check enables ICE to quickly search its databases for an individual's criminal and immigration history.
“Anyone booked and processed in the jail, his or her fingerprints are run against an FBI database which would have criminal history, but they will also be run against a Department of Homeland Security immigration database simultaneously,'' said Navas.
“If there's a positive match ICE is contacted and ICE will determine if the person is deportable and prioritize removing the most dangerous criminal aliens.''
Navas said the system has been deployed in more than 100 jurisdictions in 13 states. In Florida, she said, 14 counties are enrolled in the program, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe.
By 2013, she added, the system will be available to “every law enforcement agency in the country'' if Congress approves further funding.
Besides the 11,000 “Level 1'' offenders, Navas said thousands of other “criminal aliens'' including Level 2 and 3 offenders wanted for or convicted of other crimes, including burglary, have been identified.
Other ICE officials said at least 1,900 of the foreign criminal convicts identified under Secure Communities have been deported.
Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE assistant secretary John Morton marked the program's anniversary with a news conference in Washington.
“Secure Communities provides our local partners with an effective tool to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety,'' Napolitano said.
Morton added: “By utilizing unique biometric information Secure Communities dramatically increases the accuracy of criminal alien identifications.''