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Internal documents expose FBI role behind ‘Secure Communities’ immigrant deportation program

By Brad Sigal |
November 11, 2011
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Newly released documents show that the FBI has been a major player behind the scenes pushing the 'Secure Communities' deportation program, which is responsible for the deportation of more than 104,000 immigrants identified through the program since 2008. The program, commonly known as S-Comm, uses a massive fingerprint database to try to identify undocumented immigrants for deportation. The FBI sees S-Comm's fingerprint database as one piece of its rapidly-expanding "Next Generation Identification" (NGI) initiative, which seeks to collect and distribute massive amounts of biometric information on citizens and noncitizens alike, in the U.S. and around the world.

Despite widespread opposition to S-Comm, the Obama administration has continued to insist on implementing it nationwide by 2013. Now it's clear that the FBI is playing a large behind-the-scenes role in pushing to make it mandatory and preventing counties and states from opting out of the controversial program.

The FBI's role in all this was exposed from internal documents and emails that the FBI was forced to release in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the National Day Laborer Organization Network (NDLON) and the Cardozo Immigration Justice Clinic.

At first counties were told they could opt out of the controversial deportation program. Then after several counties voted to opt out of the program (which is implemented in county jails), they were then told that counties couldn't opt out individually because S-Comm was implemented via statewide contracts. Then Illinois, Massachusetts and California sought to withdraw from the program. As entire states started to opt out, the government changed the rules again and announced the program would be imposed nationwide and no states would be able to opt out. Now immigrant rights activists are calling for the program to be scrapped entirely.

S-Comm purportedly aims to deport immigrants who commit crimes, but in fact a large majority of the people deported under the program have committed no crimes or are only guilty of things like driving without a drivers license to get to work (immigrants are not able to get drivers licenses in most states).

The new documents reveal that FBI Assistant Director Jerome Pender expressed fears about the anti-S-Comm movement’s effect on the FBI’s relationship with states and localities and described the FBI’s position in the S-Comm controversy as “being stuck in the middle of a nuclear war.” Pender wrote: “I don’t see how we can use [fingerprint] data in a way the owner explicitly bans. This could cause the whole CJIS model [of information sharing between the FBI and states and localities] to implode.” (Email chain between Deputy Assistant Director of CJIS’s Operations Branch, Jerome Pender, CJIS Assistant Director, Daniel Roberts, Deputy Assistant Director, Stephen Morris, and other FBI officials, May 10, 2011, FBI-SC-FPL-00487-488).

So rather than backing off on their plan for massive biometric data collection, the FBI continued to ignore state and local governments' demands to limit the use of their data and instead continued to press for S-Comm to be mandatory and expanded data sharing to other domestic agencies and foreign governments.

According to the documents, the FBI “recognizes a need to collect as much biometric data as possible . . . and to make this information accessible to all levels of law enforcement, including International agencies.” Accordingly, it “continues to work aggressively to build biometric databases that are comprehensive and international in scope.” (Interoperability Initiatives Unit, FBI CJIS, December 2010, SC-FBI-FPL-1143-1159, at 1143.)

Jessica Karp of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network said, “The rise of the FBI’s surveillance system places all of our civil rights at risk ... It’s clear that the FBI and ICE’s pursuit of massive personal biometric data collection as a goal in itself tramples on the rights of individuals and states. Secure Communities needs to be ended before more are trapped in its dragnet.”

Anh Pham, an immigrant rights activist who is also involved in the Committee to Stop FBI Repression said, “‘Secure Communities’ criminalizes Latino immigrant communities and has separated over 100,000 families. Now we know the FBI was pushing this program behind the scenes. The FBI has also criminalized Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians since 911, and is now engaged in a grand jury witch hunt against anti-war and international solidarity activists too, trying to lock up dedicated anti-war activists under allegations of supporting ‘terrorism’. We need to unite against the criminalization of immigrants and activists across the board.”

An annotated index to the newly-released internal FBI documents on S-Comm is here: