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Back to Archives | Back to September 2010 Contents 

Secure Communities: Identifying and Removing Criminal Aliens

By David J. Venturella, Executive Director, Secure Communities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Washington, D.C.

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t the beginning of this year, law enforcement officers booked three individuals, all incarcerated on charges of first degree rape, first degree kidnapping, and robbery with a dangerous weapon, into the Catawba County Jail in Newton, North Carolina.

Through Catawba’s standard booking process, a new biometric information–sharing capability deployed in the county by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) identified all three subjects as being present in the United States illegally. One subject tried to conceal his identity by providing an alias, but his fingerprints revealed that he had overstayed his visa. The other two subjects were confirmed to have entered the country without inspection at ports of entry. ICE was automatically notified of their arrests and immigration statuses through the biometric information–sharing capability and issued ICE detainers for all three subjects. Upon completion of the criminal justice process and the individuals’ eligibilities for release, ICE will assume custody, ensuring they will not be released back into the community.

Catawba County is one of more than 544 jurisdictions across the United States benefiting from this biometric information–sharing capability, part of the ICE Secure Communities strategy to improve and modernize the identification and removal of criminal aliens—non–U.S. citizens convicted of a crime—from the United States. By enhancing technology used by local law enforcement agencies during their current booking process and improving information sharing across federal, state, tribal, and local agencies, ICE is able to take appropriate enforcement action against aliens who are subject to removal in custody.

When Criminals and Immigration Enforcement Intersect

Each year, law enforcement officers arrest approximately one million people who, like the subjects described earlier, are accused of crimes, are non–U.S. citizens, and are of interest to ICE.1 Accurately identifying an arrestee as an alien is difficult. In recent years, ICE has made progress toward better identifying and removing criminal aliens through a variety of initiatives, but the criminal alien enforcement process still faces challenges.

Traditionally, identifying criminal aliens was time consuming and often relied on biographic information, such as a name and a date of birth, which could be false. To start, if law enforcement officers suspected someone that they arrested was a non–U.S. citizen, they would submit a manual request for identity information to ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC). Then, LESC personnel would manually process such requests by checking the information through multiple databases to verify the person’s identity and determine immigration status. This process could be complicated by individuals who use multiple aliases to evade detection by authorities. Finally, law enforcement agencies could be susceptible to the perception of racial or ethnic profiling as the basis for their manual requests to ICE.

A Modern Approach to Criminal Alien Enforcement

ICE is implementing a new strategy to improve its ability to identify and remove criminal aliens from the United States, helping law enforcement agencies keep their communities secure.

The new strategy, titled Secure Communities, has three goals:

  1. Identify criminal aliens through modernized technology, continual data analysis, and timely information sharing with a broad range of law enforcement partners.

  2. Prioritize enforcement actions to arrest and remove criminal aliens who pose the greatest threat to public safety.

  3. Transform criminal alien enforcement to efficiently identify, process, and remove criminal aliens from the United States.

Secure Communities leverages biometric technology
used in the current booking process.

The Secure Communities strategy relies on collaboration among various federal agencies and with state, tribal, and local officials. The implementation of this strategy helps to lift the burden that criminal aliens impose on local law enforcement and enables the federal government to maintain its responsibility of enforcing immigration law.

The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) US-VISIT program are two key partners in this effort. CJIS maintains the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), which stores biometric criminal records; and US-VISIT maintains DHS’s Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT), which primarily stores biometric immigration records. CJIS and US-VISIT have made these systems interoperable, enabling fingerprints submitted to one system to be checked against both systems automatically.

ICE is using this new biometric information–sharing capability, or IDENT/IAFIS interoperability, to support the identification of aliens when they are arrested by state, tribal, and local law enforcement. Reliant upon strong collaboration with law enforcement partners, the deployment of IDENT/IAFIS interoperability is a critical tool in the ICE Secure Communities strategy.

IDENT Explained

The IDENT system stores more than 100 million biometric records and checks fingerprint submissions against multiple sets of data. These data sets include people who have committed certain crimes and immigration violations, as well as non–U.S. citizens who have had no unlawful interactions with the federal government. Therefore, a match in IDENT doesn’t necessarily mean that the person in custody is an immigration violator or has committed a crime.

IDENT data includes biometric immigration records, including records from visa applications, entries into the United States, immigration benefit applications, and other lawful immigration-related interactions. Additionally, IDENT included the US-VISIT watch list, which integrates data from across agencies and from the international police organization INTERPOL to provide a single resource for biometric records of criminals, immigration violators, and known or suspected terrorists.

Identification through Information Sharing

IDENT/IAFIS interoperability enables ICE to identify aliens in law enforcement custody more quickly and accurately using biometrics—in this case, fingerprints—and modernizes information sharing among federal, state, tribal, and local agencies. ICE is activating IDENT/IAFIS interoperability in jurisdictions across the United States with little to no change or cost to law enforcement’s daily operations.

Currently, when law enforcement officers arrest and book an individual into custody, fingerprint records are taken and transmitted to the state identification bureau (SIB).2 Among its various checks, the SIB submits the fingerprints to the FBI’s CJIS Division to check against IAFIS for criminal record matches. If there is a matching criminal record, law enforcement officers receive that subject’s record of arrest and prosecution sheet.

As part of the Secure Communities strategy, ICE activates IDENT/IAFIS interoperability in local jurisdictions, enabling fingerprints submitted at booking to be checked against FBI criminal history records and DHS immigration records, providing valuable information to accurately identify those in custody. This process applies to all individuals arrested and booked into custody, not just those suspected of being foreign nationals.

When fingerprints match DHS records, ICE is notified and promptly determines if enforcement action is required. At the same time, law enforcement may receive this immigration information through the state identification bureau.3 The deployment of IDENT/IAFIS interoperability does not authorize law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration laws.

Through the deployment of IDENT/IAFIS interoperability, ICE is identifying criminal aliens at the earliest possible time: when they are booked into local custody for a crime. This early identification enables ICE to process aliens with prior criminal convictions for removal in parallel to their criminal proceedings, so ICE may efficiently remove criminal aliens directly following the completion of their criminal sentences. ICE encourages due process and the full prosecution of all criminals, including those aliens who are subject to removal.

Risk-Based Prioritization to Remove Threats

Where IDENT/IAFIS interoperability has been deployed, the ICE field office prioritizes enforcement action based on the level of threat an individual poses to society. ICE divides these priorities into three levels. Level 1 offenses—ICE’s top priority—are criminals who have been convicted of serious crimes, such as homicide, kidnapping, robbery, major drug offenses with sentences greater than one year, and offenses involving threats to national security. Level 2 offenses are all other felonies, and Level 3 offenses are misdemeanors and lesser crimes.

While Level 1 offenses are the top priority, the ICE field office may take action on aliens who are subject to removal. The ICE field office maintains the discretion to take action and often considers the availability of resources at the time.

Enforcement action may include ICE issuing a detainer on an individual in law enforcement custody, arresting the subject at the time of release, or tracking the case through the criminal justice process. The law enforcement agency will be contacted if ICE plans to take custody of the individual after the criminal justice process is complete.

As of July 31, 2010, ICE has deployed IDENT/IAFIS interoperability to 544 jurisdictions across 27 states. ICE plans to be able to respond to leads generated through the biometric information–sharing capability nationwide by 2013.

ICE is prioritizing IDENT/IAFIS interoperability deployment, initially focusing on jurisdictions that have the highest estimated volumes of criminal aliens or criminal activity while remaining flexible. For instance, ICE prioritized jurisdictions in the Southwest last year to address increased violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. First and foremost, ICE is committed to working with law enforcement to ensure a smooth deployment of IDENT/IAFIS interoperability in jurisdictions across the country.

By improving ICE’s ability to identify and remove criminal aliens from the United States, Secure Communities is
also improving public safety. Advances help local law enforcement officers keep their communities secure.

Technology to Manage Criminal Alien Enforcement

ICE is modernizing its overall approach to include new processes and technologies to deal with the anticipated increase in identified criminal aliens due to IDENT/IAFIS interoperability; smarter distribution and balance of ICE’s workforce and detention capacity; and prioritization of resources to support criminal alien processing.

In addition to deploying IDENT/IAFIS interoperability nationwide, ICE is making investments to ensure the entire criminal alien enforcement process performs efficiently and effectively to accommodate the increased number of criminal aliens being identified. Ultimately, this means that information systems will help to gather and verify information, providing ICE agents with better data so they can concentrate on analyzing the data and taking action against criminal aliens.

Benefits for Law Enforcement

Success by the Numbers

IDENT/IAFIS interoperability was first implemented in Harris County, Texas, in October 2008. Since then, through July 31, 2010,

  • 544 jurisdictions in 27 states are benefitting from IDENT/IAFIS interoperability;

  • more than 3.2 million fingerprints have been submitted through

  • IDENT/IAFIS interoperability; and
  • 37,918 criminal aliens in the United States have been removed because of Secure Communities.

The Secure Communities strategy helps law enforcement officers by helping to prevent criminal aliens from being released back into their communities—but this is not the only benefit.

It’s easy. IDENT/IAFIS interoperability requires little to no change to current law enforcement procedures, and law enforcement agencies that use digital fingerprint scanners incur no cost. It takes place behind the scenes and does not affect law enforcement officers’ daily operations.

It’s quick and accurate. IDENT/IAFIS interoperability improves ICE’s ability to quickly and accurately determine the immigration status of an individual in custody because it relies on biometrics and not simply biographic information, which can be forged. Also, IDENT/IAFIS interoperability may help determine if a subject is using an alias or has used an alias in the past with immigration officials.

It focuses on criminal aliens. IDENT/IAFIS interoperability is a tool to help identify aliens, convicted of a crime and subject to removal, from the United States. ICE maintains its authority to take enforcement action on any alien subject to removal from the United States, but detaining individuals on minor infractions is not a priority. Those arrested for felonies and violent crimes are the stated enforcement priority.

It reduces the opportunity for allegations of racial and ethnic profiling. The fingerprints of every individual arrested and booked into custody are checked against immigration records—not just those manually submitted by law enforcement officials based on something a subject has said or some other subjective indicator.

It provides law enforcement officials with more information about their subjects. Information shared through the SIB can now include criminal history, immigration status, and identity information, which may be useful for officer safety and for investigative purposes.

It brings an around-the-clock commitment from ICE. New immigration enforcement personnel have been added to enable ICE to issue detainers 24/7 on those subject to removal from the United States.

Law Enforcement’s Group Effort

ICE is taking a multipronged approach, which includes implementing the Secure Communities strategy and efforts such as the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) and the 287(g) program, to address the complex and dynamic challenges of criminal alien enforcement. These efforts have distinct yet complementary roles.

CAP is responsible for identifying, processing, and removing criminal aliens already incarcerated in federal, state, and local jails throughout the United States. CAP officers provide coverage to 100 percent of state and federal prison facilities and to 46 percent of local jails, targeting the highest risk facilities with the largest foreign-born populations.

The 287(g) program is a voluntary program that authorizes state and local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law as outlined in section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Through 287(g), state and local law enforcement officers may be authorized to enforce immigration laws in jails (similar to CAP officers) or proactively in their jurisdictions. All criminal alien enforcement actions initiated by 287(g) officers are approved and managed by ICE officers.

IDENT/IAFIS interoperability, a key part of the Secure Communities strategy, complements CAP and 287(g) officers’ enforcement operations by identifying aliens in local custody early in the criminal justice process through biometric matching. Additionally, the deployment of IDENT/IAFIS interoperability is helping ICE fill gaps where neither CAP nor 287(g) officers are available to identify aliens in local custody.

Overall, this multipronged approach to criminal alien enforcement is helping improve public safety nationwide by ultimately removing criminal aliens from the United States. Without the partnership and support of law enforcement agencies across the nation, the success of these efforts, now and in the future, could not be possible. ICE appreciates and values the support and collaboration of law enforcement agencies across the United States. For more information, visit or contact the Secure Communities Communications and Outreach Branch at 202-732-3900. ■

From the Case Files

East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana—On July 6, 2010, the Baton Rouge Police Department arrested an individual for three counts of simple burglary and one count of illegal possession of stolen property. During booking, ICE used the federal biometric information–sharing capability to verify the individual’s identity. Cross-checking criminal and immigration records revealed that the individual had used at least three aliases and was a previously removed aggravated felon. In 2000, he was sentenced to five years in prison for manufacturing methamphetamine and for felony first-degree forgery, and he was removed from the United States upon completion of that sentence in 2006. He is currently in local custody with an active ICE detainer in place. Upon disposition of current charges, he will be removed from the United States.

San Pablo, California—On April 7, 2010, a suspect was arrested for murder; gross vehicular manslaughter; hit and run; driving under the influence (DUI); and driving with a suspended license. During booking, the suspect’s fingerprints were checked through IDENT/IAFIS interoperability, revealing that the suspect was previously removed from the United States and returned illegally. The check also revealed prior convictions for carrying a concealed weapon, cruelty toward a spouse, and multiple DUIs. ICE agents placed a detainer for the suspect. Upon conclusion of his judicial proceedings, the suspect will be transferred to ICE custody and prosecuted for reentering the country after deportation.

Catawba County, North Carolina—On January 11, 2010, three suspects were arrested on charges of first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping, and robbery with a dangerous weapon. During booking, their fingerprints were automatically checked against Department of Justice and DHS records, revealing that all three suspects were illegally present in the United States. Within hours, the local ICE field office placed detainers for all three individuals, enabling federal authorities to assume custody after the judicial process is complete.


1Calculated by Secure Communities, based on modeling.
2National Fingerprint File (NFF) states send fingerprints to CJIS only at the time of the initial arrest. CJIS made system changes to support NFF states’ participation in IDENT/IAFIS interoperability.
3If a law enforcement agency does not currently receive messages from CJIS, it will not begin receiving them through Secure Communities unless information technology upgrades are made. For more information about the necessary capabilities, law enforcement should contact the local SIB.

Please cite as:

David J. Venturella, "Secure Communities: Identifying and Removing Criminal Aliens," The Police Chief 77 (September 2010): 40–49, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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