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Fingerprinting program targets law-breaking immigrants

By Rafael Romo, CNN Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
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Fingerprints don't lie
  • Program allows police to quickly check fingerprints against federal database
  • Critic says the system amounts to "open season for Latinos"
  • It targets dangerous criminals, but minor offenders also could be deported

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Evans Mesadieu has racked up a lengthy rap sheet during the three years he has lived illegally in the United States.

He has been convicted of at least six charges, including battery on a law enforcement officer and cruelty to children.

Each time he was arrested, Mesadieu lied about his status, using 15 aliases in Georgia and Florida that allowed him to continue living illegally in the country.

Now, he faces deportation back to his home country, the Bahamas, because of a new fingerprinting program launched by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"What we are introducing to the process is the digital exchange of the fingerprints so that we can run them through the databases, not only at the FBI but at the Department of Homeland Security for immigration purposes in a matter of minutes and get them back to the law enforcement officials," said John Morton, assistant secretary of homeland security.

Where to find the program
The DHS fingerprinting program is in effect in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts,
Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

The Secure Communities program was launched in one county in October 2008 and has been growing ever since. It is now available in 108 counties in 11 states, and DHS hopes to have the program available nationwide by 2013.

"Secure Communities is all about public safety, and it is all about trying to identify for removal from this country serious criminal offenders in local communities," Morton said.

The program was launched in Gwinnett County, Georgia, in October. The machine that scans fingerprints at the county detention facility is about the size of a small refrigerator. Officers use its large screen to take a suspect's fingerprints and automatically check them against FBI and DHS databases.

"At any point in time where that individual may have been encountered by DHS for whatever reason, their fingerprints are going to be in that system," Gwinnett County Sheriff's Capt. Jon Spear said.

He said the new system has streamlined the old process, which involved several steps that took days or weeks.

"Prior to this program, if we wanted to do a comprehensive check done with the fingerprints, we had to contact DHS, submit information along with fingerprint cards. [Then,] an actual physical check was done that could take days before that information was sent back.

"Now, with biometrics, it is all sent automatically."

But immigrant rights activists say the new system unfairly targets Hispanic migrants.

"It's open season for Latinos in Georgia," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Elected Officials.

Gonzalez said the program takes away local law enforcement's ability to decide whose fingerprints are run -- essentially reporting everyone to federal immigration authorities, even people with minor offenses or extenuating circumstances.

"They are deporting people for minor traffic violations. That is outside the scope of what [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano wants to accomplish," he said.

The program is in effect in places like Pinal County, Arizona, where Hispanics represent just over 30 percent of the population. But it is also available in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where Hispanics make up less than 5 percent of the population.

The focus of the program, according to DHS, is to capture the most dangerous criminal immigrants.

Mesadieu is an example of how the system works, according to Spear. The Bahamas native will be deported to his home country after serving his sentence for his prior convictions at the Gwinnett detention facility in Georgia.

When asked about concerns that the program amounted to racial profiling, Spear offered this advice: "Don't break the law. If you are not in custody, you are not going to be checked."