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Deadly Management

Saturday, January 1, 2005; Page A22

YOU MIGHT NOT expect that people die as a result of bad database management. But then again, you probably haven't read the growing string of reports by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine on the incompatibilities between the fingerprint identification systems run by the FBI and by immigration authorities. These reports, the latest of which Mr. Fine released this week, have spurred significant improvements, but unfortunately, as the new one details, the problem persists. As long as it does, tragedies are waiting to happen.

Back in 2000, the inspector general's office reported on the case of Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, who was arrested while illegally crossing the Mexican border. The Border Patrol never learned that Mr. Resendez-Ramirez was wanted for murder in the United States, and it sent him back to Mexico. The error happened because the immigration service's database was not fully connected to the FBI's, so the Border Patrol check didn't reveal him to be a wanted man. Mr. Resendez-Ramirez later crossed the border again and killed more people before being caught.

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Last year Mr. Fine issued another report on a similarly tragic case. Victor Batres illegally crossed the border twice during 2002, only to be detained and returned to Mexico. The third time, however, was the charm, and he made it as far as Oregon and raped two nuns there, one of whom he killed. As in the Resendez-Ramirez case, much of the problem was the absence of coordination between the fingerprint databases. Had Border Patrol agents known of Mr. Batres's extensive criminal record, they would not have released him.

These cases were extreme, but not, as it turns out, anomalous. The immigration database, now run by the Department of Homeland Security, flags those who repeatedly cross the border, and it contains some criminal data and watch-list information as well. The FBI's database, however, links a person's criminal history to his or her fingerprints; if immigration officials can't do this, they can unwittingly let criminals into the country.

And it turns out that this happens a lot. When the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Citizenship and Immigration Services) in 2001 started adding those immigrants with arrest warrants against them to its database -- a small subset of the FBI's data -- the agency picked up 4,820 over the next six months alone, including 50 wanted for murder. It also dumped 179,500 full criminal histories into the system involving people from countries the United States regards as a threat. Literally thousands of these people have been detained since. A wave of criminals, in short, has been allowed into this country by poor database management.

The good news in Mr. Fine's latest report is the "significant positive steps" to "expedite the deployment of the initial integrated version" of the identification system. Homeland security officials have deployed workstations capable of accessing the FBI's data at all Border Patrol sites and at many ports of entry across the country. But the FBI and state and local law enforcement officials still cannot routinely tap into DHS's data. And what's more, Mr. Fine reports that "progress toward the longer term goal of making all biometric fingerprint systems fully interoperable has stalled" because the various components of the government cannot agree on standards.

Nor does the initial integration solve the problem of criminals who show up at airports as opposed to sneaking across the border. In fact, less than 1 percent of visitors will have their fingerprints cross-checked against the FBI's data, though DHS does check fingerprints against its watch lists at airports. This omission is significant, because a recent Justice Department study found that almost three-quarters of criminal immigrants get identified only by querying the FBI's full criminal history data, not just the watch lists. As a consequence, Mr. Fine writes, "many criminal aliens -- including many who committed violent crimes that threaten the public safety -- are not identified and may be unknowingly admitted to the United States." How many more avoidable tragedies is it going to take to get this right?

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