Fingerprint database could get $10 million upgrade

The national electronic database of fingerprints, which is missing countless sets of prints taken before 2005, could receive a $10 million infusion of funds to digitize the old prints now sitting in card files across the country.

The gap in the IDENT database was exposed in January when The Washington Post uncovered that a man wanted in the rape of an 8-year-old girl in Fairfax County had been in the Loudoun County jail several weeks before the incident. And although the man, Salvador Portillo-Saravia, had been deported from the United States in 2003, when Loudoun jail officials checked his fingerprints in November through the “Secure Communities” computer, there was no match reported, and he was released.

Portillo-Saravia, identified by Fairfax police as a member of the street gang MS-13, was arrested in Houston in February. He is awaiting trial in Fairfax on forcible rape and forcible sodomy charges.

Immigration officials said that many people who were deported before 2005 were fingerprinted the old-fashioned way, with inked fingertips rolled onto a card or sheet, and an unknown number of those prints are not in the electronic database. Now, fingerprints are taken in many local jails and federal facilities by placing a person’s hands on a computer scanning screen, which captures the prints electronically.

Immigration officials also said that local jails should send them a second, manual inquiry if they still have immigration-related suspicions about someone whose prints come back with “no match.” But as of January, many jail officials in the Secure Communities program, both in Virginia and Maryland, said they were unaware that the database was incomplete and didn’t have the resources to run a second, manual check on the many immigrants who come through their doors.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Northern Virginia, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chair of its subcommittee overseeing the Justice Department budget, sent a letter to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking what could be done to resolve the problem. On Tuesday, Wolf’s proposal to provide $10 million to digitize old fingerprint cards was included in the budget reported out of the House Appropriations Committee, and Wolf said he expects the funding to survive the rest of the budget process.

“Why would somebody oppose this?” Wolf said. “It’s not a special-interest issue. I think the likelihood of it staying in the budget will be very, very high.”

Wolf said he submitted the $10 million request “in order to maintain the safety and protection of this area, but I think it’s something that, frankly, should be done nationwide.”

ICE officials said they would not comment on pending legislation.

Dealing with immigration officials has been a tricky task for local law enforcement agencies, who want to maintain good relations with immigrant communities for purposes of hearing about and solving crime. The Secure Communities program was seen as a neutral way to handle the problem, by running the fingerprints of every person arrested through the national IDENT data­base to see if the person has any immigration detainers or other related issues. Every jail in Virginia is now participating.

Portillo-Saravia, 29, entered the country illegally in 2000 and was deported in October 2003 after being picked up by gang detectives in Prince William County, authorities said. But at some point he returned, which alone is a federal offense. He was arrested for public drunkenness in Loudoun in November, run through Secure Communities and released. He is accused of assaulting the girl in her Centreville home on Dec. 26.

In March, in response to Wolf’s letter, an ICE official said Portillo-Saravia’s inked fingerprints should have been entered in the IDENT database, “but the agency policy . . . was not followed.”

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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