As deportations of illegal immigrants have surged to record levels in recent years, critics have accused the Obama administration of embarking on a politically motivated crackdown.
Muzaffar Chishti has another explanation: Advances in information technology make it harder for the undocumented to remain undiscovered. No matter who the president is, “we would be deporting the same number of people,” said Chishti, who heads the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.
“It’s not a product of executive decisions,” he said. “It’s a product of the machinery of enforcement that has evolved over the years.”
Underscoring that point is a recent institute report that calls new data capabilities a “critical pillar” in the enforcement system.
Under the US-VISIT program, for example, the Department of Homeland Security collects fingerprints and digital photographs of millions of noncitizens entering the United States each year. That information is fed into a database known as IDENT — the Automated Biometric Identification System — that houses the fingerprints of more than 148 million people and is growing by about 10 million entries a year. Those records are linked to an FBI fingerprint database that gives all levels of law enforcement access to individuals’ criminal records, the report said.
The result: Through a fingerprint check, police anywhere in the country can quickly flag whether someone arrested for a minor traffic offense has a criminal past that would make him a candidate for deportation. Of the almost 410,000 people “removed” from the U.S. in fiscal 2012, more than three-quarters were convicted criminals, immigration fugitives or repeat violators of immigration laws, according to DHS.
Laws passed in the mid-1990s helped pave the way by requiring automatic deportation of anyone convicted of certain crimes and by allowing federal immigration authorities to enlist state and local police in the effort. But it took 9/11 to give the laws teeth, as Congress mandated more information-sharing and approved huge spending increases as part of anti-terrorism efforts.
Between 2004 and 2011, for example, federal funding for “criminal alien identification and removal” skyrocketed from $24 million to $690 million, according to a review last year by the Justice Department’s inspector general. US-VISIT and IDENT rank as the world’s “largest law enforcement biometric identity-verification system,” the Migration Policy Institute said in its report.
But the system has flaws. In a separate audit of US-VISIT released last August, the DHS inspector general found about 825,000 instances where the same fingerprints were matched with different biographic information. Although that was a tiny percentage of the overall number of records, the volume “makes it significant,” the IG said. In response, DHS officials agreed to do more to check for inconsistencies and weed out “biographic identity fraud.”
The government runs a variety of other databases to track visa seekers, foreign students and immigrant benefit applicants. The FBI is also working on a replacement for its fingerprint ID system that would rely on palm prints, iris scans and other biometric markers, according to the institute’s report.
But enforcement gaps remain, Chishti said, such as in monitoring when noncitizens leave the U.S. and in screening visitors entering the U.S. through congested land border crossings.