The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

New Program Gives Local Police Immigration Enforcement Tools

by Michelle Chen

*A correction was appended to this news report after initial publication.

Sept. 13, 2006 – Massachusetts has become the launchpad for a new federal initiative to enmesh community policing and immigration-law enforcement.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last Thursday that it will provide state and local police with unprecedented access to a new federal database. The plan will be tested first in Boston.

The program will integrate two key federal fingerprint databases: the DHS’s growing collection of data on visitors to the US, and the FBI’s fingerprint identification system, which links to the country’s main criminal database, the National Crime Information Center.

Under the merger, according to the DHS, when state or local law-enforcement officials process the fingerprints of someone who is also registered for an immigration violation, federal authorities will be automatically alerted. Local police can assist federal officials by detaining the suspect.

But immigrant advocacy groups worry that giving state and local police access to the database could lead to misinformation and encourage the criminalization of immigrants, particularly in the heated political climate currently surrounding unauthorized immigration.

Advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are concerned that the databases may be incomplete or erroneous, pointing to a track record of inaccuracy at the National Crime Information Center.

Advocacy groups fear that the databases may be incomplete or just wrong, pointing to a track record of inaccuracy.

A 2005 study by the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration-focused think-tank based in Washington, DC, found that about 40 percent of immigration-related database queries that turned up suspects were "false positives," in which the "DHS was unable to confirm that the individual was an actual immigration violator."

"What this means is that state or local police will be given information that may or may not be accurate. And they can act on that," said Michelle Waslin, director of immigration policy research with the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil-rights organization.

"People who are here perfectly legally can be placed into legal purgatory because of an error in the database," she told The NewStandard.

The database merger is part of a broad border-security program known as US-VISIT. Since 2004, the DHS has been deploying US-VISIT to gather data from visitors at numerous US entry points, including more than 100 airports. So far, according to the agency, some 64 million visitors have been processed, and more than 1,300 individuals have been "intercepted" by federal authorities through data screenings.

But auditors with the Government Accountability Office stated in a February 2006 report that the DHS had not yet fully assessed or resolved potential management, security and privacy issues as the program was being implemented.

Speaking with the New York Times last week, Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty program, called the fingerprint database "an unreliable system being run by a barely competent agency."

Critics argue that mixing policing and immigration law-enforcement not only undercut civil rights, but indirectly threaten public safety as well.

The DHS acknowledges that the system is still being developed, but says the Boston pilot will serve as a trial-run before the database goes nationwide.

Meanwhile, some states have begun warming to the prospect of taking on immigration enforcement duties. Since 2002, Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division has launched special joint initiatives with agencies in Florida, Arizona, California and other states to apprehend undocumented immigrants on federal and state charges. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney proposed directing state troopers to help root out immigration violators earlier this year.

Generally, collaboration between local and federal authorities on immigration has been limited. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, however, the Department of Justice declared that states had "inherent authority" to apprehend immigrants, even for civil violations.

Though the potential local impact of the new data exchange is unclear, William Casey, deputy superintendent of the Boston Police Department, told the Times that it does not plan to use US-VISIT data in a way that departs from normal police operations.

Immigrant advocacy organizations have partnered with some police organizations, including the Boston Police Department and the California Police Chiefs Association, to oppose initiatives to make immigration enforcement a local priority.

Harvey Kaplan, of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, warned that the pilot program could strain fragile police-community tensions in the ethnically diverse city. He told TNS that if police move toward immigration enforcement, "witnesses are not going to go forward; people are going to be afraid of the police because they might be turned in."




Minor Change:

The original version of this article misstated that the Migration Policy Institute is based at New York University School of Law. In fact, while the Institute's report was prepared in collaboration with New York University School of Law, the Institute itself is independent and based in Washington, DC.

Also, the New York Times article cited was dated Friday, September 8, not Sunday, September 10.

 | Change Posted September 13, 2006 at 14:11 PM EST

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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