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Civil rights groups want details on immigrant fingerprint program

by Claritza Jiménez

As Arizona turns up the heat on illegal immigrants, civil rights groups are demanding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) release details about a rapidly expanding federal program that helps local police identify illegal immigrants for potential deportation. The Center for Constitutional Rights and two other groups filed a lawsuit on April 27 attempting to force ICE to turn over data about its “Secure Communities” program after failing to get the information through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“This program has very little public scrutiny. There’s very little known about the way it operates,” said Sunita Patel, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal organization that joined the FOIA lawsuit.

The Secure Communities program, launched by ICE in October 2008, gives local police the power to compare fingerprints of  individuals taken into custody with FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security immigration databases. The fingerprint cross-checking program now operates in at least 160 communities, and ICE plans to expand it to every jail in the United States by 2013.

The program is operating in the shadows, Patel says, and the Homeland Security immigration database is riddled with errors.  Another concern of the civil rights groups is whether Secure Communities encourages racial and ethnic profiling by police – an issue that critics of the Arizona law have also raised. Arizona's controversial new immigration enforcement law requires police to question people about their immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" they are in the United States illegally.

The new lawsuit, filed in federal court in New York, asks ICE to disclose any racial profiling complaints, how such complaints are handled, the cost of the program, how officials prioritize the identification of “dangerous criminal aliens,” whether local communities can opt out of the program, how agreements between local police and ICE are reached, and whether there is any Congressional or agency oversight.

“We believe that without this information there’s no way to make a sound decision around whether this program should even be expanded,” said Patel.

An immigration law clinic operated by the Cardozo School of Law in New York and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network joined the FOIA lawsuit. The groups filed their first FOIA request on Feb. 3, 2010.  “We haven’t received what we requested. We have not received responses to the request,” said law student Brooke Menschel.

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said he could not explain why specific data from the Secure Communities program is not available to the public. Rocha told the Center he would try to find out what FOIA information has been given to the advocacy groups, or if the agency has a timeline to provide it.

ICE’s website describes the Secure Communities program as a public safety initiative ”to better identify criminal aliens, prioritize enforcement actions on those posing the greatest threat to public safety, and transform the entire criminal alien enforcement process.”

The lawsuit said details about the ICE program should be released “to facilitate meaningful public discourse and increase government transparency” as well as to help state and local government officials make “appropriate decisions about implementing the program and conducting oversight.”

“How can the public hold the program accountable if we don’t have information?” said Menschel.

ABOUT THE DATA:

What: Lobbyist Bundler Disclosure Database

Where: Federal Elections Commission Web site, here

Availability: Accessible  to the public

Format: Non-searchable .PDF

Usability: Non-searchable files, some handwritten and some illegible

Send your tips on government data sets that you think should be made more accessible or user-friendly to datamine@publicintegrity.org. We’re eager to hear what you turn up — full credit and links will be provided to individuals whose suggestions we use in our series.

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.