The Department of Homeland Security is undertaking a new initiative to allow local police to check the immigration status of those persons it takes under custody. The plan has sparked protest by at least one human rights group.
In the past, detainees’ fingerprints were checked against a Federal Bureau of Investigation database to determine if they had a criminal history. Under the Secure Communities Program, however, their fingerprints will also be checked against DHS’ Ident database, said Anna Hinken, a DHS spokeswoman.
The program checks a detainee’s biometrics against a watch list of nearly five million known or suspected terrorists, criminals and immigration violators that have been identified by U.S. government agencies and Interpol, Hinken said.
Biometrics are also checked against more than 100 million sets of fingerprints DHS has collected since the start of US-VISIT, which takes biometrics from foreign visitors entering the United States to determine if a person is using an alias, she said.
The goal is to prevent dangerous criminals — drug offenders, murderers, rapists, robbers and kidnappers — from being released back into communities, said David Venturella, the program’s executive director in a statement.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a DHS agency, administers the program. If an individual’s fingerprints match a set in the DHS system, an automated process notifies ICE and the local authorities who made the arrest. Cases are reviewed individually and violent offenders could face deportation if they are staying illegally in the United States.
The program has been adopted in several North Carolina counties and DHS plans to extend it to state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide. Duplin County, N.C., Sheriff Blake Wallace said in a statement that the system “is another tool in our arsenal to make Duplin County an even safer place to live, work and raise a family.”
Human rights advocates worry about a slippery slope. The initiative is a departure from the norm. Ordinarily, police do not check offenders’ immigration status.
Amnesty International USA worries about the program’s expansion, citing “fundamental constitutional and human rights concerns,” said Sarnata Reynolds, the organization’s director of refugee and migrant rights.
“Secure Communities can be applied too broadly, with draconian effects,” she said.
While the initiative checks biometrics during booking, technology exists to check fingerprints with handheld devices. That could give officers a green light to review minorities’ immigration status during a traffic violation.