INS to deploy fingerprint scanners in fight against citizenship fraud

The Immigration and Naturalization Service last week unveiled a plan to use technology to reduce rampant errors in the naturalization process, some of which have led to the granting of citizenship to criminals.

The INS' naturalization process now is based largely on paper transactions, which has resulted in numerous individuals being granted citizenship when they were not eligible. INS, with help from KPMG Peat Marwick, found 369 people who, over the course of a year, were naturalized even though they had been convicted of a felony or a crime. Moreover, INS has pinpointed close to 6,000 other cases in which naturalization should not have been granted.

Part of the problem has been a surge in the workload for INS, with more than 1 million people seeking citizenship in 1997 compared with only 250,000 in 1995. But the paper-based system also has caused delays and mistakes because many times applicants' fingerprints, which appear on paper, are smudged and cannot be read properly. The FBI, which receives the fingerprints, cannot always determine if the applicants are criminals, said William Hawthorne, a partner in accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand LLP, which has helped INS create the plan.

INS now plans to install automated fingerprint scanners to capture fingerprints digitally and send them electronically to the FBI. The scanners will be part of an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) that INS will use to track applicants throughout the naturalization process, verifying their identity at interviews and when it comes time to take the citizenship oath. INS has yet to award the estimated $95 million AFIS contract.

"By moving the fingerprinting to INS facilities, we're guaranteeing that the print truly belongs to the applicant," said Stephen Colgate, assistant attorney general for administration at the Justice Department.

Robert Bratt, executive director of naturalization operations at INS, said the agency expects to have fingerprint-scanning stations rolled out to nearly 120 INS offices by April or May. Meanwhile, INS will partner with more than 40 state and local law enforcement agencies that will electronically scan applicants' fingerprints for INS.

Bratt said INS is spending $211 million this year to automate and overhaul its processes, including electronic fingerprinting, automated interview scheduling and bar-code equipment that can read data on certain INS forms.

But some experts believe it may take INS longer to roll out the scanning systems and get people trained to use them. "They've chosen a very aggressive schedule to implement [the fingerprint-scanning stations]," said a fingerprint expert who asked that his name not be used. "No one has ever installed them that fast."

Jack Martin, special projects director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, agreed. "It's going to be a couple of years," he said. "All they're talking about with an April/May time frame is having the initial pieces in place."

Nevertheless, Martin said INS' effort to build the scanning system is a positive move. "We look at this, in terms of the future, as being a significant mover in the right direction."

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