BOSTON (AP) — A mobile fingerprinting app U.S. immigration agents use to run remote ID checks in the field has become a core tool in President Donald Trump’s deportation crackdown, a pair of immigration rights groups say in a new report based on a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The 2,500 pages of documents obtained through the 2017 lawsuit show that the app, known as EDDIE, has helped Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents ramp up deportations of migrants not intentionally targeted for removal, the report states. Such people are often detained as “collaterals” picked up in operations aimed at others, the activists say in Monday's report. They say that field use of the app exacerbates racial profiling in immigrant communities.
For instance, an internal agency newsletter released with the documents described immigration agents using the app during traffic stops in collaboration with local police in Escondido, California, in 2017. That report credited the operation with “333 illegal alien arrests” in a 12-month period, although it provided scant additional context.
Used routinely by U.S. immigration and border agents, mobile fingerprinting figures in a biometric data collection scheme the Trump administration is seeking to broadly expand in its final weeks. A regulation proposed by the Department of Homeland Security on Sept. 11 would formalize the collection of face, iris and palm prints of non-citizens, as well as their DNA, in addition to the fingerprint data now collected.
“EDDIE is a way to bypass oversight and accountability,” said Paromita Shah of the nonprofit Just Futures Law, which produced the report with the immigrant rights group Mijente. “It allows agents to do the booking, to do the interrogations out of sight, out of the public’s view," she said. "And in those places, abuse is most likely to occur.”
ICE spokesman Mike Alvarez rejected those allegations. He said field use of the mobile app, which is paired with Bluetooth-enabled fingerprint readers, does not replace detention booking at a local office. “There is no way to know” whether its use increases collateral arrests, he said, because the agency doesn't collect such data.
The app allows field agents to remotely check fingerprints they collect against those registered in DHS and FBI databases. Courts have questioned federal databases' reliability when used as the sole basis for detention decisions.
Under extraordinary pandemic-related powers beginning in March, Border Patrol agents have used mobile fingerprinting devices to assist in immediate expulsions to Mexico without giving migrants a chance to seek asylum.
The FOIA lawsuit was brought by the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild and Mijente, who say the collection and sharing of biometric data by DHS leaves non-citizens vulnerable to both civil rights and data privacy abuses. The EDDIE app accesses a person’s immigration history, any outstanding arrest warrants and previous encounters with U.S. law or immigration officers. It collects location data and time stamps and has been used in all U.S. immigration field offices as well as abroad, the documents show.
Becca O’Neill, a Charlotte, N.C., immigration lawyer, said ICE agents routinely use the app when pulling over vehicles linked to deportation orders, trying to fingerprint everyone inside. Agents do the same at targeted homes, she said. O’Neill tells migrants they have a constitutional right not to submit to mobile fingerprinting. Alvarez, the ICE spokesman, said it is voluntary. But activists say immigration agents’ behavior often contradicts that claim.
Immigration officers cannot force their way into homes without a court-issued warrant, so they often use such deceptive tactics as identifying themselves only as “police,” immigration activists say. Such behavior can be seen in the Netflix documentary miniseries “Immigration Nation,” where EDDIE is seen being used on "collaterals.”
In its platform, the campaign of President-elect Joe Biden vowed to “ undo the damage ” of Trump’s anti-immigration policies but did not address data-collection issues. Biden's transition team did not reply to requests for comment.
Sarah Pierce of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute think tank is worried the Trump administration will rush into place the proposed expanded biometric collection rule prior to leaving office on Jan. 20.
The rule could effectively place non-citizens — including children — under a continuous surveillance regime that would be complicated for the Biden team to dismantle, she said.
AP immigration reporter Elliot Spagat contributed to this story from San Diego.