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BLURRING THE LINES: A Profile of State and Local Police Enforcement of Immigration Law Using the National Crime Information Center Database, 2002–2004

BLURRING THE LINES: A Profile of State and Local Police Enforcement of Immigration Law Using the National Crime Information Center Database, 2002–2004

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States Department of Justice has sought to engage local police in the systematic enforcement of routine civil immigration violations, marking a sea change in immigration and local law enforcement practices. The Department has justified this new policy as a critical element of its counter-terrorism programs and an important “force multiplier” for its immigration enforcement operations. As part of this effort, thousands of civil immigration records have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) system used primarily by police around the country to exchange criminal history information and to identify individuals with outstanding warrants.

The newly established NCIC Immigration Violators File (IVF) now includes records regarding three immigration offenses: (1) persons previously convicted of a felony and deported; (2) persons allegedly subject to a final deportation, exclusion, or removal order (“absconders”) but who remain in the country; and (3) persons allegedly in violation of a requirement of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (“NSEERS violators”). Now, an immigration “hit” occurs when a name and other identifying information entered in an NCIC query returns a positive response. The Bush Administration also announced plans to enter additional immigration records into the IVF, including those relating to alleged student visa violators, although it later signaled ambivalence about such an expansion.

Earlier this year, in partial settlement of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released data about use of the NCIC immigration records by state and local police forces from 2002 to 2004. This report provides the first public glimpse of how the new NCIC policy has affected on-the-ground policing strategies across the country and which immigrant groups have been most heavily impacted. Key findings include:

- Forty-two percent of all NCIC immigration hits in response to a police query were “false positives,” where DHS was unable to confirm that the individual was an actual immigration violator.

- Maine had the highest rate of false positives – 90 percent of calls from that state could not be confirmed by DHS. California had the lowest rate, with 18 percent of total calls unconfirmed.

- Eighty-five percent of all immigration violators identified in a statistically significant sample of NCIC hits were from Latin America. Seventy-one percent were from Mexico.

- The number of “absconders” identified annually through the NCIC increased by nearly 25-fold from 2002 to 2004.

- Police have identified no NSEERS violators through the use of the NCIC.

- On a state-wide basis, law enforcement in California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and New York utilized the NCIC immigration records the most. Vermont and Montana had the lowest gross number of NCIC immigration hits.

- State-wide, Nebraska and South Carolina law enforcement utilized the NCIC immigration records the most in relation to the state’s total unauthorized population.

- Of individual police departments, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department, as well as other southern California departments, contacted DHS the most in response to NCIC immigration hits. The Phoenix Police Department, the Texas State Police, and the New York Police Department also ranked highly.

The findings contained in this report confirm that the immigration records in the NCIC are not effective for widespread use. Not only do these inaccurate records clutter the database, they also appear to divert officer time and attention from local public safety priorities. The increasing frequency of local police recording NCIC immigration hits almost certainly results in more police detentions and arrests for civil immigration violations, consuming increasing amounts of police resources over time. Wrongful detentions and the high rate of absconder arrests seem likely to undermine community trust in local police forces. Additionally, demographic information of immigrants identified by NCIC indicates that the NCIC immigration files are not being used to further a targeted anti-terrorism agenda, the principal justification offered for the Department of Justice’s policy. Rather, the use of these records has mostly resulted in indiscriminate arrests of Mexican and other Latin American nationals.

Section I of this report outlines the history of state and local police involvement in immigration enforcement and summarizes the policy debate surrounding this issue. Section II presents and analyzes the new data regarding the use of the NCIC immigration files. The section first describes the demographics of individuals identified by the NCIC as immigration violators and then analyzes the activity of state and local police in this area. Finally, the report discusses the limitations of the data released by the government. The report also includes appendices which provide more detailed information about each of the twenty state and local agencies most active in utilizing NCIC immigration records, as well as data on NCIC immigration hits from school campuses and airports.

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