Border Patrol expands fingerprint searches

Border Patrol agents and other federal law enforcement officers can now simultaneously search through two federal fingerprint databases to see if aliens crossing illegally into the United States are wanted by authorities.

The integrated search function of the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and Homeland Security Department's Automated Biometric Identification System (Ident) was expanded to all 136 Border Patrol stations and about 100 other ports of entry. The function is available about three months ahead of schedule, said Robert Bonner, commissioner of DHS' Customs and Border Protection (CBP), of which the Border Patrol is a part.

The integration "was supposed to be accomplished by the INS years ago," he said, referring to the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. "CBP is different. We get things done."

He said the enhanced search capabilities at all such border stations could conceivably help nab potential criminals and terrorist suspects, and they help agents work smarter.

Border Patrol stations have been using Ident, which contains identities of individuals who have illegally crossed the Mexican or Canadian into the United States, for several years. But some started using IAFIS, which contains about 47 million criminal records and histories of individuals, including outstanding arrest warrants, since August 2001 in pilot programs. That was expanded during the past three years, but officials upgraded and tested the system. They implemented a new fingerprint scanner developed by Identix Inc., so agents could simultaneously search both databases.

For example, when agents scan the prints of an individual's 10 fingers, they transmit the data to IAFIS for a match and get responses within 10 minutes on average. The system also peels the prints of that individual's two index fingers and sends it to the Ident system for a match. According to Kelly Good, assistant chief of the Border Patrol agency, Ident contains about 7 million records dating back to 1994.

Under the old system, if Border Patrol agents needed to identify an individual, they would either have to fax or mail the information to the FBI, a process that could have taken anywhere from eight hours to three months to get an answer, Bonner said.

DHS officials also plan to expand the system to major airports and other ports of entry by November. They expect the system to expand to all ports of entry, about 400 or so, by the end of the 2005 fiscal year.

Bonner said the system expansion cost about $2.2 million, mainly for equipment, but he did not know the price tag for development and integration costs. "They're not fall-off-the-chair kind of costs," he added.

Good said the Border Patrol, which has a total of 402 scanners, including 300 of the new Identix model, gets about 10,000 hits a month from the IAFIS database. He said there are plans to equip mobile units with a similar scanner, but that will be part of the agency's America Shield Initiative, a multiyear, multimillion dollar project to integrate the agency with state-of-the-art technology. That project has not been awarded yet.

During the past year, Border Patrol agents using the IAFIS system have arrested 138 homicide suspects, 67 kidnapping suspects, 226 sexual assault suspects, 431 robbery suspects, 2,342 suspects for other assaults and 4,801 suspects involved in drug trafficking.

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