Misrepresentation in the Coverage Claimed for Secure Communities

By W.D. Reasoner on June 2, 2011

Secure Communities (SC) is a sound program that helps protect the law abiding from the effects of crimes committed by aliens.

It's a shame that U.S. Immigration and Customs (ICE) has made such a muddle of explaining to ordinary Americans what the initiative is and how it works. Worse, they have done the program real harm with a constant stream of misinformation and disinformation put out on a near-daily basis. Nowhere is this more true than in their manipulation of statistics.

Former ICE Official Dan Cadman Explains
the Secure Communities Program:
View the Full Interview

In a nutshell, ICE:

  1. has a responsibility under the law to apprehend and remove aliens illegally in the U.S. – particularly criminal aliens;

  2. has a concomitant ethical and fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers to do so in the most efficient, cost-effective way possible; and, perhaps most important,

  3. has an obligation to the society it serves to identify criminal aliens as quickly as possibly in order to deter, through removal, recidivists, violent gang members, sexual predators and the like.

SC achieves all of these things by tying together existing systems and technical processes to identify criminal aliens at the point of arrest by state and local law enforcement officers instead of relying upon traditional labor-intensive manual processes, thus preserving ICE's limited officer resources. This electronic marriage of systems is referred to as "interoperability." It does so through electronic comparison of fingerprints, which are a widely available and trusted form of biometrics known to have a solid basis in forensic science and a long history of utility in law enforcement.

For screening of an arrestee's fingerprints to occur via interoperability, they must have been taken digitally on a "live-scan" machine by police or sheriff's departments at the time of the alien's booking, and transmitted electronically to the FBI's IAFIS fingerprint database (usually with an intermediate electronic "stop" through the relevant state's criminal identification bureau). IAFIS then moves the digitized prints electronically to the Department of Homeland Security IDENT database for comparison. It is this comparison which alerts both the police and ICE that the individual has been identified as an alien, when a fingerprint match occurs.

ICE uses Secure Communities statistical measurements – metrics – as a way to gauge its progress and to trumpet its success toward its yearly and ultimate goals. The SC metrics are also used to inform Congress on a quarterly basis of what it is getting in return for its funding commitment for the program.

It should go without saying that metrics are valuable only insofar as they are intellectually honest, transparent, and mean what they say they mean. But with hundreds of millions of dollars in past funding to account for, and hundreds of millions of future dollars at stake, ICE has chosen to gild the lily. SC's statistical measures cannot be taken at face value.

Let's look at a fundamental and singularly important metric used by ICE to measure SC progress, because that's where the fun with numbers begins: the percentage of state and local police arrests of aliens whose fingerprints were electronically screened via interoperability.

By 2013 ICE intends interoperability coverage to achieve identification of 100 percent of all police arrests of aliens nationally. To ensure that this occurs, ICE has set aggressive yearly goals for the percentage of alien arrests that must be covered under the Secure Communities interoperability umbrella. By implication, this means a substantial expansion of interoperability year-by-year, to be certain that by 2013, all 3,141 jurisdictions that exist in the United States will be covered ("jurisdiction" is synonymous with "county," "borough," or "parish").

Significantly, it also means that a substantial number of those jurisdictions must be in demographically dense urban areas where the highest number of arrests occur – places like Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), or the five boroughs of New York City. Unfortunately, because of ICE's confused, not to say conflicting, past statements about whether or not local communities can opt out of SC, there are a number of large metropolitan areas (such as those just mentioned) where interoperability has not been activated.

This has created tremendous internal pressure on the agency to be able to provide Congress good news, and ensure that the funding stream continues unabated despite these significant (and self-inflicted) obstacles to expansion and progress.

For instance, in its first quarter report to the Congress for Fiscal Year 2011, ICE reported that 66.43 percent of aliens arrested or charged in the United States are now subject to being electronically screened through interoperability. (See Section III, pages 4 and 5.)

That percentage is egregiously misleading.

Here is why, although be forewarned the explanation is somewhat technical and dry – something ICE probably counts on to mask its misleading, overly optimistic assertion of electronic screening coverage percentages.

First, it is important to understand how ICE calculates the percentage. Basically, they have taken raw information – including key FBI records capturing nationwide arrest data for past years – and broken it down, to determine only those arrests which relate to foreign-born non-citizens ("FBNCs"), which is a long-winded way of saying "aliens." This number is then further broken down, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction so that a percentile can be derived for each county's portion of the overall national number of police arrests of aliens for crimes. So when a jurisdiction is activated for interoperability, its percentage of the total number of alien arrests is deemed to be "covered."

The problem is that the electronic screening coverage percentages were derived from statistics capturing alien arrests for all fingerprints submitted to the FBI, whether electronically or by the old-fashioned method, using ink and fingerprint cards. But even in so-called "activated" jurisdictions, many police and sheriff's departments do not have, and cannot afford, live-scan equipment.** Thus, the fingerprints which they are taking by card-and-ink, and later submitting, are not in fact screened, since SC checks only digitally scanned prints. In several states, less than half the total number of law enforcement agencies possess live-scan equipment. Interoperability has no meaning to them, although they continue to arrest and book aliens – and although ICE chooses to overlook this discrepancy for reporting purposes, since to subtract their share of non-screened arrests from the jurisdiction's overall percentage would drive down, to a significant degree, the national coverage figure it has been claiming to Congress and the public.

There is at least a partial fix to the problem. Recognizing that a lot of their police and sheriff's offices don't have fingerprint scanning technology, many state criminal identification bureaus will receive the hard-card fingerprints on a batch-mail basis from those offices. They then scan in the cards, and transmit them to IAFIS. It would seem logical that from this point onward, the flow should parallel police agencies doing their own live-scanning – that on electronic transmission to IAFIS, such prints would continue into IDENT for comparison. However, ICE has chosen not to permit this. At the inception of SC, they insisted on installation of a seven-day filter in the IAFIS system. Any fingerprint received in IAFIS seven days or longer after the date of arrest is not forwarded to IDENT for comparison.

ICE headquarters officials suggest that they insisted on this seven-day filter because they didn't want to overwhelm their field offices, and it is likely that after a week or more, the alien will have posted bond rendering it impossible to file a detainer. On the first point, my admittedly unscientific polling of field officers indicates that they don't agree with the policy and would rather be aware of the arrest than remain in ignorance. On the second point, if ICE is to be taken at face value that their goal is to focus on the "worst of the worst," then aliens arrested for the most heinous of crimes are those least likely to have bonded out because they will have been denied bail, or it will have been set so high that it cannot readily be posted. Yet ICE field officers will not know of the case through interoperability means, because of a decision made and maintained by headquarters personnel despite the serious and reasonable objections which exist to continuing with this filter. But that hasn't stopped them from claiming cumulative "coverage" credit for those cases, has it?

** Large, populous counties frequently have several law enforcement agencies operating simultaneously within their jurisdiction: one or more municipal police departments, a sheriff's office, sometimes a state police troop station and other agencies as well such as transit police – all patrolling and making arrests on a routine basis. But a jurisdiction is deemed "activated" for Secure Communities purposes when any one of the police agencies operating in its boundaries has live-scan equipment, and the fingerprints are electronically transmitted to IAFIS and onward to IDENT – even if all of the other agencies in that jurisdiction are unable or unwilling to submit fingerprints digitally by electronic means.