History of IDENT

In fiscal year 1989, Congress provided the initial funding for the INS to develop an automated fingerprint system to identify aliens encountered by the INS. The purpose of the system was to identify aliens who are repeatedly apprehended attempting to enter the United States illegally as well as to identify criminal aliens who should be detained. According to the conference report describing Congress’s rationale for funding the project:

The conferees are concerned over the so-called “revolving door” phenomenon of illegal entry by aliens. This phenomenon involves repeated attempts by aliens to cross U.S. borders, requiring continual apprehension, removal and repeat apprehension of the same individual by INS officials. Illegal immigration continues at alarming rates, and criminal alien statistics provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service indicate a growing proportion of aliens are drug smugglers, known criminals and suspected terrorists. Emerging technology in the area of automated fingerprint identification systems has the potential for providing empirical data to clearly define the problem of recidivism as well as immediately identify those criminal aliens who should remain in the custody of INS.

Congress appropriated $1.3 million to allow the INS to undertake a test of an automated fingerprint identification system in the San Diego Border Patrol Sector.

In response, the INS arranged for a study to analyze the possible use of an automated fingerprint identification system and to analyze information about aliens apprehended by the INS crossing the border in the San Diego Border Patrol Sector. In this study, the fingerprints of each apprehended alien were taken manually on a fingerprint card, then scanned into an Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) for comparison. This study analyzed the number of apprehensions, the place and time of the apprehensions, and the accuracy of the name provided by the apprehended aliens. The fingerprints were not compared with any set of identified criminal fingerprints to determine how many of the aliens had criminal records.

In 1989, Congress provided the INS an additional $2 million to expand the initial study in the San Diego Border Patrol Sector. The INS’s Office of Information Resources Management (OIRM) is the entity within the INS responsible for supporting INS’s operating components through the development and maintenance of automated information systems. It reports to the INS’s Executive Associate Commissioner for Management. OIRM noted in a 1989 memorandum that an automated fingerprint identification system could also provide the INS the capability of identifying immediately aliens suspected of criminal activity, aliens who have outstanding warrants, and aliens who have been previously apprehended.

The expansion of the pilot study was delayed because of INS budget difficulties and lack of staff. Eventually, in fiscal year 1992, the INS designed and procured a pilot automated fingerprint identification system, called the Software AFIS Screening System (SASS), which operated in the San Diego Border Patrol Sector’s Chula Vista Station from November 1991 to June 1993. The system compared two fingerprints taken from apprehended aliens against an INS database of criminal aliens and an INS database of previously apprehended aliens.

Two other events spurred the development of the INS’s automated fingerprint identification system. First, in 1993 the INS formed the Southwest Border Task Force to develop a strategic plan to control and deter illegal immigration along the Southwest Border. This initiative eventually resulted in the establishment of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994. In Operation Gatekeeper, agents were placed in fixed positions throughout the San Diego Border Patrol Sector to stem the tide of illegal immigration in that area and shift attempted border crossings by illegal aliens eastward, where the terrain would make it harder for them to cross the border and easier for the Border Patrol agents to apprehend them.

To aid in tracking the results of Operation Gatekeeper, OIRM was asked to implement an automated fingerprint identification system that would identify, with a quick turnaround, every alien apprehended. According to an OIRM official closely involved with the development of IDENT, the primary purpose of the system was to allow Operation Gatekeeper to identify recidivist crossers and determine how often they attempted to cross the border.

The second event spurring the development of IDENT was the 1994 emergency processing of Cubans and Haitians at the United States Naval Station at Guantanamo. In 1994, United States authorities apprehended many Cubans and Haitians attempting to reach the United States by sea and took them to the Naval Station at Guantanamo, where the INS processed them and determined which ones were eligible to enter into the United States. The INS used an automated, two-fingerprint identification system developed by the Navy to identify the aliens at the base. This experience demonstrated to the INS the feasibility of using a two-fingerprint system in a large-scale effort to identify individuals and further spurred the INS’s interest in the development of IDENT.

In September 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, commonly referred to as the Crime Bill of 1994, was signed. This law appropriated large amounts of funds to the INS, beginning in fiscal year 1995, for the development and deployment of the INS’s biometric database system, which became known as IDENT. For example, in fiscal year 1995, approximately $27 million in no-year funds were appropriated for the INS biometric program. Millions more were allocated over the next several years.

The INS began implementing IDENT in October 1994. It was first installed in the San Diego Border Patrol Sector and then throughout the Southwest Border. By the end of 1995, IDENT was installed at 52 Southwest Border sites. Most of the IDENT workstations were initially installed at seven Border Patrol sectors, with the San Diego Border Patrol Sector having the greatest number of sites. IDENT also was installed at three district offices, at several service processing centers, and at several ports-of-entry.

In the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Congress specifically directed the INS to expand the use of IDENT “to apply to illegal or criminal aliens apprehended Nationwide.” This law also directed the INS to “operate a criminal alien identification system . . . to assist Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies in identifying and locating aliens who may be subject to removal by reason of their conviction of aggravated felonies, subject to prosecution . . . [because they are] not lawfully present in the United States, or otherwise removable. Such system shall include providing for recording of fingerprint records of aliens who have been previously arrested and removed into appropriate automated fingerprint identification systems.” The INS responded by specifying IDENT as the system serving this purpose.

On March 27, 1996, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner signed the IDENT System Project Plan. According to this document, IDENT workstations were being used extensively to perform quick lookout checks along the Southwest Border at Border Patrol locations and key ports of entry. The plan noted that the INS had made more limited progress in defining system requirements to meet the operational needs of INS operations outside of the Border Patrol.

In 1997, IDENT was widely deployed throughout the Southwest Border. By June 1999, IDENT was deployed at 408 INS sites, including Border Patrol stations on both the southern and northern borders, ports of entry along the southern border, some ports of entry along the northern border, and some district offices, airports, and asylum offices.