Post-9/11 congressional mandates for better interagency information sharing have often been taken in a direction that undermines community safety and threatens personal privacy. According to new government records released to the public on July 6, 2011, the FBI is using its clout to cajole state and local law enforcement agencies into participating in the Secure Communities program (S-Comm) of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Under S-Comm, law enforcement agencies share sensitive data, collected for the purpose of stopping crime, with other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security. ICE, which is part of Homeland Security, then uses the data for civil immigration enforcement. Thus, S-Comm turns local police into immigration agents.
The bureau’s new Next Generation Identification (NGI) system—an effort to achieve greater interoperability among databases at the national level, expand the biometric data in those files, and increase the size of the databases—is the tool for such information sharing. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Day Labor Organizing Network have sued to shed light on NGI.
S-Comm has come under fire from law enforcement and immigrant advocates alike. Law enforcement officials complain that the program undermines community policing initiatives, frightening community members away from working with police. Of the approximately 400,000 deportations under the Obama administration, 100,000 have been attributed to S-Comm. Many of the individuals removed were identified through their histories in the Criminal Alien Program, a program which puts ICE agents in county jails and detention centers to identify persons subject to removal. However, public officials charge that S-Comm is also responsible for deporting individuals over minor infractions, not dangerous crimes.
When an individual is detained or arrested, local law enforcement usually sends fingerprints and other data to the FBI, to check for matches against its databases. Increasingly, law enforcement is collecting additional personal identifying traits, such as retina images and palm prints. Under S-Comm, the FBI sends this personal data to ICE, which checks to see whether it matches information in its databases and whether the individual is subject to deportation. Yet, the information in ICE databases is not always reliable or up to date.
Because local agencies rely heavily on the FBI for background checks, the FBI can force them to participate in S-Comm. Many local and state agencies have been trying to opt-out of S-Comm, but according to Jessica Karp, staff attorney at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the FBI stands in their way:
The Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Advisory Board, which oversees the FBI’s criminal databases, passed a motion in June 2009 recommending that the FBI convert S-Comm from a voluntary to a mandatory program. At that time—and as much as one year later—ICE was still representing S-Comm as voluntary to state and local officials. The FBI’s decision to support mandatory imposition of S-Comm was not driven by any statutory requirement but rather for what it called “record linking/maintenance purposes.” In fact, the FBI considered making S-Comm voluntary, showing that it viewed opting out as both a technological possibility and a lawful option.
S-Comm essentially does what Arizona’s SB1070 law—which requires police to check the immigration status of people they detain or arrest—hoped to do, but on a national level. The image of FBI databases linked to those of Homeland Security should anger and concern every civil libertarian. With immense intelligence-collection power comes the responsibility to use information only for the purposes for which it was intended.
Even as immigration from Mexico has slowed to close to zero, senior law enforcement officials are trying to make sure that a heavy-handed, anti-immigrant security apparatus is well-entrenched.