FBI intends to trawl controversial ICE program

FBI intends to trawl controversial ICE program
By M. Alex Johnson, msnbc.com reporter

The FBI plans to play a big role in a controversial immigration program that sifts through local police records to root out illegal immigrants, according to government documents obtained by opponents of the program.

The program, Secure Communities, gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement access to local police records and fingerprints when they are routed through the FBI’s database. ICE then uses those records to determine whether someone in a local jail may be in the country illegally.

Publicly, the FBI is supposed to be a passive participant in Secure Communities, or S-Comm, automatically notifying ICE of potential immigration problems whenever one appears in a criminal record requested by a local police agency.

But the new documents — published this week by organizations that contend that S-Comm is a Big Brother weapon to round up and deport all illegal immigrants — describe the program in much broader, cross-agency terms:

Participation by local law enforcement is “inevitable because SC is only the first of a number of biometric interoperability systems being brought online by the FBI ‘Next Generation Identification’ (NGI) project,” according to the key document — a joint FBI/ICE guide to building support for S-Comm. (NGI is the FBI’s planned expansion of its fingerprint database to include other identifiers, such as facial recognition.)

S-Comm raised concerns in dozens of states and in Congress after msnbc.com reported last year that although federal authorities were consistently telling local law enforcement agencies that their participation was voluntary, internal ICE and DHS documents made it clear that the agencies always intended it to be a mandatory program.

The DHS inspector general’s office opened an investigation in May into how S-Comm has been sold to local authorities.

Bridget Kessler, a lawyer for the Cardozo Law School Immigration Justice Clinic, one of the groups that obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act,  said the records “provide a fascinating glimpse into the FBI’s role in forcing S-Comm on states and localities. The FBI’s desire to pave the way for the rest of the NGI project seems to have been a driving force in the policy decision to make S-Comm mandatory.”

The documents are available in PDF form on the organizations’ website, Uncover the Truth.

Many local leaders have sought to suspend their agencies’ participation — including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month — but ICE and DHS insist they don’t have that prerogative.

In fact, the FBI/ICE guide states explicitly that local “non-participation” measures will have no effect on nationwide deployment of the program.

“Once interoperability is activated in that jurisdiction, the arrestees’ fingerprints will in fact be checked against (immigration records) … and forwarded to the appropriate DRO (Detention and Removal) Field Office for information and action as appropriate,” it says.

The guide says it is intended to help federal authorities persuade a “resistant jurisdiction” to sign on to the program now, “instead of just flipping the switch in five years.”

It lays out three strategies: “penetrate the jurisdiction” by enlisting all of its neighbor cities and counties in a “ring of interoperability” of enthusiastic municipalities around the reluctant location; bypass local police entirely by going straight to state prisons; and drive home the point that “non-participation does not equate to non-deployment.”

Immigration advocates say the program encourages local law enforcement to round up suspected illegal immigrants on other charges so they will fall into the S-Comm net. At the same time, some law enforcement officials criticize the program as a de facto drafting of local resources to enforce federal laws.