INS to issue digital green cards

As part of its widescale effort to rebuff illegal immigration the Immigration and Naturalization Service this month plans to replace the "green card " which legal immigrants use for identification and employment purposes with what agency officials hope will be a more secure card bearing encoded digital information.

The current green cards carried by about 10 million legal immigrants are similar to a driver's license and bear basic information including a photo and a fingerprint image. With the new cards that information and more will be digitized and stored on a compact disc-like optical strip. Because an immigrant's information is stored digitally INS officials believe the cards will be more difficult to falsify.

"I think any time you have a document that you're trying to keep as secure as possible the goal is [for it] to be state-of-the-art " said Geoff Verderosa special assistant to the deputy assistant commissioner for benefits at INS.

INS was required to develop the new cards by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 which required INS to issue machine-readable cards by April and to have equipment and procedures for using them by October 1999.

INS worked with the company ISI to develop the card which will store on an optical strip digitized fingerprints a digital photo a digitized signature and later may store a full digital record of an immigrant's immigration history possibly including country of origin and the dates on which an immigrant left or returned to the United States.

An optical strip unlike a magnetic strip commonly found on credit cards is like a compact disc which is read by a laser but more durable than a magnetic strip. Each card can store about 4M of data. By comparison a 3.5-inch floppy disk stores up to 2.8M of data. "It will probably be the most secure form of ID issued by the federal government " said Mike Devine project leader for INS' Integrated Card Production System.

INS officials hope the digital card will help reduce the amount of illegal immigrants entering the United States where about 5 million immigrants do not have legal documents.

Four INS service centers will produce the cards and INS will issue the cards to applicants or immigrants who need to renew green cards. The cards issued this year are good for 10 years so a decade will pass before the optical card totally replaces the older cards.

The issuance of the cards this month is not a pilot project Verderosa said. "Once you switch to a card like we're doing it you just do it wholesale " he said explaining that an all-at-once approach makes it easier for INS officials to eliminate confusion with card issue dates. In making the switch to optical cards INS will close down its card production center in Grand Prairie Texas and move jobs to its Dallas service center.

Despite the fact that counterfeiters will have a wide time window for exploiting the nondigital green card INS critics including the Federation for American Immigration Reform Washington D.C. are applauding the switch to the new cards. "We're all in favor of that " said K.C. McAlpin deputy director of FAIR. "We've been pushing for the adoption of that kind of technology [which has] been available really for years." The new cards McAlpin said should deter illegal aliens from falsifying green cards in the future but not immediately. "It will be years before this benefit will pay off " he said.

"In terms of the data that's to be stored on the card many of those decisions haven't been made yet " said Devine who explained that INS officials are still waiting on the FBI to develop digital identification standards INS will use in nabbing criminal aliens.

INS considered developing a smart card which stores information on a computer chip because smart cards "permit a high level of security for the information stored on the card " according to an April 1996 INS technology reference guide explaining the benefits of smart cards. INS determined smart cards were too expensive. Smart cards "cost some money " said Peter Higgins a Washington D.C.-based computer identification consultant. "They're probably $10 to $20 apiece. If [INS officials] charge people for replacement ones then it's a good idea."

Higgins said the optical card should eliminate some bureaucracy and shift card-development responsibility to the private sector.

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