Is the Federal Fingerprint Program Working?

At best, the federal Secure Communities Program isn’t working as well as it should.

The program’s goal is to remove illegal immigrant criminal offenders from the country.  Since the program’s 2008 inception, the program has helped Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deport 81,000 dangerous illegal immigrants.  Law enforcement agencies that use the program determine illegal immigrant arrestees simply by matching their fingerprints against immigration databases.  That’s exactly what police in Loudoun County, Virginia, thought they were doing in November 2010.

Back then, Loudoun County officers arrested Salvador Portillo-Saravia for public drunkenness.  Portillo-Saravia’s electronic fingerprints were checked against the databases under the Secure Communities Program, but came back negative.  Seeing nothing unusual about the suspect, officers released him once he became sober.  The officers had no way of knowing the database should have returned a hit on Portillo-Saravia’s 2003 deportation.  They also had no way of knowing they had released a dangerous offender who would go on to rape an 8-year-old girl the day after Christmas.

How did this violent criminal slip through the very system intended to flag him?  The answer lies in a technology gap.  During Portillo-Saravia’s 2003 arrest, his fingerprints were taken with ink and paper instead of with a live scan.  Those fingerprints were never added to the electronic database—something law enforcement officers failed to realize, and understandably so.  ICE’s online program materials don’t mention the need to manually check older fingerprints, instead touting the elimination of manual inquiries.

One positive result from this grim misunderstanding: ICE’s vow to educate law enforcement about the need to run manual records.  As for digitizing the multitude of ink-and-paper fingerprints, ICE has no timeline for completing the project. And as for Portillo-Saravia, he has been charged with one count of rape and one count of sodomy and is awaiting extradition to Virginia.

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