California Uses Biometrics to Help Target Illegal Immigrants

Any person arrested and fingerprinted in California will undergo an automatic immigration check through the Secure Communities program.

by / February 25, 2011

As of this week, any person arrested and fingerprinted in California will now undergo an automatic immigration check.

California became the ninth state in which each county has activated Secure Communities, a fingerprint data-sharing program between local law enforcement offices and federal immigration enforcement agencies. Other states with complete activation include Texas, West Virginia, Florida, Arizona, Delaware, Virginia, Wisconsin and New Mexico.

Secure Communities is a program between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice that automatically sends name and fingerprint information submitted through a federal file-sharing system, where it’s checked against both the FBI criminal history records and biometrics-based immigration records in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Automated Biometric Identification System.

If fingerprints match DHS records, ICE determines if immigration enforcement action is required, considering the immigration status of the alien, the severity of the crime and the person's criminal history. Priority is placed on aliens convicted of serious crimes, such as major drug offenses, murder, rape and kidnapping.

ICE estimates that 1 million individuals arrested by law enforcement each year are not U.S. citizens. Across the country, 1,033 jurisdictions in 38 states have activated the ICE system, which has resulted in the arrest of more than 59,000 convicted criminal illegal immigrants. By 2013, ICE plans to be fully rolled out nationwide.

“What we’re seeing here is ICE receiving leads and taking the appropriate enforcement action in almost real time as that information is coming in,” said Marc Rapp, acting assistant director for Secure Communities. “There is no instance where some individuals are having their identities queried and others are not. It happens across the board, thereby eliminating the potential for racial profiling.

Since May 2009, when San Diego County became the first California jurisdiction to activate Secure Communities, ICE has taken custody of nearly 48,000 convicted criminal aliens in the state. Of that number, 23,712 have already been removed from the United States.

In Los Angeles, a previously deported aggravated felon from Mexico was arrested in January for driving with a suspended license. ICE screenings revealed that he had three prior drug trafficking convictions and a burglary conviction as well as six deportations over a period of 11 years.

Orange County activated the program last year. The Sheriff’s Department commander of custody and court operations, Dave Wilson, said the program eliminates the ability of detainees to lie about their name or country of origin.

“[Secure Communities] is one more stopgap to learn whether people are being honest about their immigration status,” he said. “Without this, we wouldn’t know that DHS would want to have contact with them; it’s automatic.”

Because Secure Communities is fundamentally an information-sharing partnership between federal agencies, state and local jurisdictions cannot opt out of the program. But jurisdictions can opt not to receive the results of immigration queries after a print is matched, according to Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE.

However, pushback from counties has mostly been about how soon to deploy the program.

“One of the benefits of this program, it doesn’t require any training or expenditure by local law enforcement,” said Kice.

Wilson said the program hasn’t made much noise in terms of day-to-day activities. “It doesn’t really impact our operation at all. It’s just a piece of information that gets shared with the federal government, and they let us know if it’s either a match or no match.”

Lauren Katims Nadeau

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.