Privacy SOS

Immigration documents illustrate a biometrics-heavy approach, federalization of state and local police

Documents recently released pursuant to an ACLU of North Carolina records request reveal, among many other things, that the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) indeed has deportation quotas, contrary to agency claims. 

An internal agency email from May 2012 says:

HQ has directed us to implement this plan and to REALLOCATE ALL AVAILABLE RESOURCES (sorry, not “shouting”, just emphasizing) to attaining this year’s criminal-alien removal target (HQ also pointed out that our Atlanta AOR criminal alien removals to-date this year are 1200 fewer than they were to-date last year).

Ok, so maybe they don’t call them ‘quotas’. They call them ‘removal targets’. Tomato, tomahto.

Later in the chain of emails, David Venturella, Assistant Director-Field Operations of the Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations writes:

“There is a lot of concern that criminal removals will fall below not only target but possibly lower than last year’s output.” One cannot simply conjure people to deport out of thin air, of course, so Mr. Venturella asks the people receiving the email “[W]hat else would you need from HQ to help you accomplish this? More resources is a no brainer so need [sic] to ask; however, are there any standing orders or directives we have issued that need to be rescinded that may prevent you from carrying out this order? Those are the types of suggestions I’m looking for so in one field memo HQ can provide the direction you need to successful [sic] deliver better results.”

In response to this email, someone from the Atlanta ICE office submits an eight page long document containing descriptions of a variety of programs that would boost deportation statistics, for which Atlanta field office agents seek approval.

Upon receiving the plan, David Venturella replies, approving the requests: “Please implement your initiatives and reallocate all available resources.” The next email in the chain appears to be a forwarding of the Atlanta plan onto the other ICE field offices — for inspiration, presumably.

The plan to get state and locals to work for ICE

So what is in Atlanta’s grand plan? Two things stand out. First, increased reliance on local law enforcement and county jails to participate in the identification and deportation of undocumented immigrants. And second, a reliance on (often federally funded) biometric technology schemes enacted at the local and state level to help the federal government identify the undocumented.

These references to state biometric programs that can be used to shore up ICE deportation quotas give support to a thesis I’ve been promoting for a while: federal grants to state and local law enforcement for biometrics collection and surveillance equipment in the end serves federal agencies themselves. 

As these ICE documents make clear, the federal agencies tasked with immigration enforcement, counter-terror operations and domestic spying cannot blanket the country like state and local police do. Agents of these federal departments have many fewer interactions with ordinary people than do state and local police officers. So federal agencies have been executing a successful strategy: give money to states and locals to buy surveillance and biometric monitoring tools, form tight-knit relationships with police departments, and watch the data flow upwards.

Atlanta’s deportation program’s wishlist, called “ERO Atlanta Field Office: Prospective Criminal Apprehension Initiatives,” provides plenty of examples of the theory in action.

  • Page 4: ICE is joining local police and Sheriff’s offices “to participate with them during scheduled traffic checkpoints….We would […] have the mobile IDENT machines set up to take fingerprints to get an accurate account of all immigration and criminal history.” The IDENT machines are biometric fingerprint scanners.
  • Page 5: A DMV face recognition project originally intended to highlight identity fraud is now being used by both the FBI and ICE: “The North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicle (NCDMV) License & Theft Division has been instrumental in assisting the Raleigh Fugitive Operations Team [ICE] with regards to locating and apprehending ICE fugitives. Mirroring the Newark CAP DMV project, the involvement of NCDMV Inspectors utilizing the state’s current facial recognition technology to screen potential fraud causes could benefit both ICE and the NCDMV.” 
  • Page 7: On using local law enforcement biometrics collection technologies to obtain data used to deport people: “Charleston ERO CAP will conduct outreach with all secure communities counties to ensure that all encounters are being submitted via biometric live scan technology to ICE. It appears that several counties in South Carolina are experiencing technical issues with the live scan equipment and are unable to submit fingerprints appropriately….Correcting these issues will greatly increase the overall number of criminal aliens encountered statewide by the CAP Unit.” 
  • Page 7-8: On the federally-led transformation of local police departments into immigration enforcers:

Operation Joint Effort is a partnership between FOD San Diego (FSD) and the Escondido Police Department (EPD) which was implemented on May 9, 2010. This partnership consists of three Deportation Officers who have been detailed to work with the EPD. The objective is to use the resources of both agencies to locate, arrest, and remove criminal, fugitive and previously removed aliens who are encountered in the city of Escondido, CA. 

FOD Atlanta would like to implement something similar by working with our local police departments. The average midsize police department issues between 250 and 400 traffic tickets per week and completes 50+ field interview cards. This is a lot of data that is being collected that ICE could look into. There are a tremendous number of local law enforcement encounters that occur on a daily basis where the individual is the subject of a traffic ticket or warning or a field interview and not taken into custody. If we could look at the data from these types of encounters and run them through our database we are likely to identify a number of aliens that fall into one of the four priorities.

Loss of local control: the federalization of state and local police

If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “I don’t care if face recognition or biometric technologies are being used against immigrants, or if local police are sharing traffic ticket data with the feds,” you should remember that in order for these tools and systems to work, they must be deployed at everyone. And if you think that DHS is deleting data on you simply because you are a citizen or have the proper papers, you need to think again.

The federal government’s biometrics data beast is hungry, and it is using every imaginable data source to feed — on potentially everyone, not just the undocumented or people convicted of crimes.

These ICE documents illustrate that when federal agencies give local police departments (or even state DMVs) grants for biometrics or monitoring technologies, they arguably do so in large part out of self interest. So when your local police department advertises that it is getting “free” technology from a federal grant program, remember that these data collection and surveillance tools come at a steep price. With the advanced technologies comes more federal data collection at the local level — again, collection on all of us. And once the federal government has its hands on our iris scans, fingerprints, palm prints, face recognition-ready images (like our drivers’ licenses) and even our voice prints, there’s no getting them back. 

When police departments collaborate with the federal government, local governments lose control over the information they collect about people in their towns and cities. That control can never be regained. 

And at least in the immigration context, the end result of this aggressive surveillance and monitoring is that the lives of those who are deported for crimes as minor as traffic violations and marijuana possessions are thrown upside down permanently. These are only some of the very real consequences of the federalization of our local police departments. And as I've previously argued, while the government claims that biometrics identification programs are aimed at catching the worst of the worst among us, they often don't. That's because ordinary people don't spend countless hours trying to defeat these systems or get around them.

The end result is that we ordinary people — documented or not — not the major drug king pins or international terrorists, are the ones caught up in the matrix.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.