WASHINGTON—The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have merged their databases of fingerprints of millions of criminals and illegal immigrants, in an unprecedented interagency effort to catch more terrorists and solve more crimes.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, law enforcement officials have worried that terrorists could escape detection because the federal government's numerous criminal and immigration databases weren't interconnected. Officials say this new link, which occurred without fanfare on Sunday, will help close that gap.
Federal agencies hope to eventually offer access to police departments across the country, which likely would provoke a controversy over how involved police departments should be in immigration enforcement.
"These are people who have violated immigration or criminal laws," said Robert Mocny, the acting director of US-VISIT, the agency that oversees the DHS database. "The people who need to make decisions about those individuals haven't had access to that information. Now they will."
With the new link, airport inspectors and border agents will be able to access more information in the FBI's database, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, known as IAFIS.
The system, which the FBI bills as the world's largest biometric database, allows law enforcement officials to search the fingerprints and criminal history information of more than 47 million people. Previously, DHS had access to information that often was days old and hand-delivered to investigators.
Under the newly merged system, FBI agents can check the fingerprints of criminal suspects against a DHS database, known as IDENT, which contains 1 million fingerprints of illegal immigrants who have been ordered deported by immigration judges.
Mocny said his agency also plans to offer willing police departments access to the database over the next two years.
The Dallas and Boston police departments will be the first two police departments to test out the newly merged system, he said, giving officers the ability to check criminal suspects' fingerprints against those of deported immigrants for the first time.
Most police departments can run only name checks or call a DHS help line to find out if a suspect has been deported previously.
Mocny said he expected the newly merged database to spark a debate among police chiefs "who either have been reticent or just haven't been allowed by their city council or county ward to assist DHS in immigration-related crimes."
"This may show the community that they have a large population of illegal immigrants who have criminal backgrounds," he said.
Even so, Mocny acknowledged his agency could not roll out a system for all major police departments until the system is fully tested because it might overwhelm immigration authorities.
"We've got about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States," he said. "We want to build up the capacity of how we're going to be able to respond."
Officials with the Boston police departments did not return calls. A spokesman for the Dallas police department said he wasn't aware of the pilot program.
Thomas Frazier, the executive director of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, said access to the immigration database will help police officers better identify criminals. However, he predicted that most police officers would not want to become entangled in enforcing immigration laws. Such scrutiny could harm a police department's relationship with immigrant communities and discourage immigrants from reporting crimes, he said.
"Where major city police chiefs are clearly in opposition to the administration is that we're not going to start stopping people on the street and running their fingerprints to check to see if they're illegal immigrants," said Frazier, a former Baltimore police commissioner. "What the federal government wants us to do is turn into an adjunct immigration agency. That's not our job and we don't have the training to do that job."
The system still has weaknesses that could be exploited by criminals or terrorists, some experts said.
Technology experts have concluded the immigration system, IDENT, should be collecting 10 fingerprints per person, instead of only two, to make the most reliable match because some criminals try to avoid detection by wearing down their fingerprints. US-VISIT plans to start using 10 fingerprints over the next two years.
"It will be a great tool for both immigration officers and law enforcement," said Jessica Vaughn, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates tougher immigration enforcement. "But it's not enough and it's very belated."