CBP officer checks finger prints of individuals entering the US.
Accurate information about an alien’s entries and departures and past unlawful presence is critical in the preparation of today’s immigration case. Prior to 1998 we relied on the FBI’s central fingerprints database to find a person’s encounters with our immigration authorities. Now, however, such reliance is misplaced because since 1997, the Department of Homeland Security (and it’s predecessor, the INS) has been registering most immigration violations in DHS’s own IDENT system, and not with the FBI.

IDENT is a DHS biometrics system designed to identify immigration violators by locking their identities to their index fingerprints and their facial image. The fingerprints are taken electronically by a one-print finger scanner, and the facial image is taken by a digital camera.

IDENT terminals are widely deployed at every border patrol station, ports of entry, asylum offices, USCIS and ICE offices, and U.S. consulates worldwide. They’re very simple desktop computers with attached fingerprint scanners and off-the-shelf digital cameras.

The system is highly effective and simple to use. The officer operator scans the subject’s index fingers and a camera automatically takes a mugshot. This information is instantly transmitted to the IDENT servers, which in turn respond by displaying side by side the current photograph and fingerprints with the photographs and fingerprints of possible matches. It’s then up to the officer to visually confirm the match.

If there are no matches, the officer may “enroll” the person into IDENT by attaching some biographical information to the fingerprints and facial image. The officer should include details about the encounter and the length of time the person was in the United States before the encounter.

So what does it all means to the immigration practitioner? IDENT has been extremely successful helping identify immigration violators. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s eerily accurate when queried with fingerprints as routinely done when applying for most immigration benefits. Unfortunately, most immigration practitioners depend on name searches through the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) process to obtain IDENT records. Our experience with such FOIA name searches has been frustratingly unreliable; so unreliable that we don’t trust negative results.

Lastly, the era of the FBI rap sheets to find immigration history is ending. Rap sheets are still fairly effective for pre-1997 encounters, but we rarely bother if the encounter was post 1997 and near the southern border.

*A few words on nomenclature:

A few years ago IDENT was absorbed into the US-VISIT system to capture the fingerprints of every non-citizen coming and going into and out of the U.S. It has also evolved into a 10-print fingerprinting system at ports of entries. But in this blog post I still refer to it as IDENT because biometrics identification is just one part of US-VISIT.

IDENT was part of the IDENT/ENFORCE system, where IDENT contained the biometrics information, while ENFORCE contained the information necessary to prepare all the paperwork associated with an apprehension. Some correctly refer to the system as IDENT/ENFORCE, but for clarity’s sake I’ll restrict the term to IDENT.