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Search Technology for Illegal Immigrants Widens

Chris Strom | Government Executive

November 13, 2009

Top Homeland Security officials on Thursday announced that by 2013 all law enforcement agencies across the country will be able to use a technology program aimed at identifying illegal immigrants held in jails and prisons — assuming Congress provides the necessary funding.

Under the Secure Communities program, which is run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, state and local law enforcement agencies can compare the fingerprints of prisoners against FBI criminal databases and Homeland Security immigration databases.

The primary focus of Secure Communities is to identify illegal immigrants who have committed the most serious crimes, such as murder and rape, and deport them. The program began one year ago.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and John Morton, who heads ICE, announced at a news conference on Thursday that the program has identified about 11,000 illegal immigrants who committed serious offenses, of which about 1,900 have been deported. The rest are serving sentences or going through criminal prosecution proceedings before deportation action is taken against them, Morton said.

Ninety-five law enforcement jurisdictions participate in the program, and the Washington, D.C., police department plans to join in about two weeks. Napolitano said the program will be operating in every state by 2011 and will be available to every law enforcement agency across the country by 2013.

In an interview, Morton noted several challenges facing the program, including the need for more funding from Congress.

“The sheer volume of agencies and jurisdictions that we need to deal with is enormous and it’s going to take some time to do that,” he said. “Second, it costs money to do this kind of thing.”

“We are identifying increasing numbers of criminal offenders we were unaware of or didn’t identify before, and that has very profound resource implications as we look to the out years,” he added. “That means we need detention space and officers to remove those people from the country.”

Morton would not disclose how much more money ICE might need in the coming years, saying the agency is negotiating its budget with OMB. Congress allocated the agency about $1.4 billion in fiscal 2010 to target criminal illegal immigrants, of which Secure Communities is one part.

“It is my expectation that, if we are to implement Secure Communities fully as planned by 2013, we will have to have additional appropriations. There’s no question on that,” Morton said. “The cost of going nationwide is far greater than the agency’s present budget can absorb.”

Morton also disputed claims that Secure Communities is being used in the racial profiling of Latinos.

“This is not about, has not been and won’t be about conducting basic civil immigration enforcement for noncriminal offenders in the criminal justice system. It just doesn’t work that way,” he asserted. “We’ve seen absolutely no evidence of Secure Communities being used that way.”

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