Rebekah Cowell

Rebekah Cowell is an investigative journalist based in the Triangle, North Carolina, area. Her reporting specialties are social justice matters with a focus on environmental injustices in African-American communities across the Southeast and human rights violations of Latinos in North Carolina. Her work has been published in the Independent Weekly, the News and Observer, the Chapel Hill News, Our State Magazine, Slate Magazine and Grit Magazine.

2011 Project

Fingerprinting in North Carolina

Statistics raise questions about Secure Communities program

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By Rebekah Cowell

Local law enforcement officials in North Carolina are failing to transmit to federal authorities the fingerprints of nearly 1 in 3 people they arrest despite a mandate to report them all, government statistics show.

Sheriff’s offices in eight North Carolina counties told the State Bureau of Investigation they had made 243,559 arrests during a three-year period ending Nov. 30, 2010, according to FBI statistics. But only 171,419 of those arrests, or 70 percent of the total, were reported to U.S. Immigrations and Customs officials, according to ICE records.

All 100 counties in North Carolina are enrolled in the federal government’s Secure Communities program, which was described as a tool to make communities “safer,” according to policy-makers.

According to ICE’s mission statement, “Secure Communities was designed to reduce the potential for racial profiling. Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of every single individual arrested and booked into custody, including U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, are checked against immigration records – reducing the risk of discrimination or racial profiling.”

But a close examination of statistical arrest data from ICE and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NC-SBI) raises numerous questions about how the program is being implemented in the field and on the local level.

Submissions used in ICE’s Interoperability Statistics and Biometrics data are numbers produced by the computer system that matches the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) databases against one another. The numbers ICE produces are automatically compiled by a computer.

However, the numbers produced by the NC-SBI are collected by county before going to the state.

In examining ICE’s Interoperability Statistics, and comparing the government’s computer-generated data with the SBI county arrest data for North Carolina counties from Nov. 12, 2008, through Nov. 30, 2010, significant discrepancies were found. They call into question the actual “safety” and impartiality of the Secure Communities program.

“The numbers – submissions – are going to reflect what was shared with the FBI,” said

ICE spokesperson Nicole A. Navas. When asked to explain the numerical differences in ICE’s statistics and North Carolina’s statistics, Navas said, “I have no idea.” But she later noted that this could indicate that not all fingerprints were submitted or sent to the FBI.

Under the terms of the Secure Communities program, local law enforcement agencies are required to fingerprint every person they arrest for any reason, and to forward those fingerprints to the FBI to cross-check against federal databases containing the prints of known criminals and illegal immigrants.

The statistical data raise several questions about the efficacy of the program. If ICE’s purpose is to prevent racial profiling under Secure Communities by booking and fingerprinting everyone who is arrested and running those individuals through federal and IDENT databases, what could this mismatch in numbers indicate?

Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger said he had not familiarized himself with the method for gathering arrest data in his county. “I don’t know who’s reporting what,” he said, noting that 10 different agencies are involved in the process. “There are so many officers in the county.”

Noelle Talley, public information officer for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, said the arrest statistics are reported to the SBI Crime Reporting Unit by local law enforcement officers, including felony and misdemeanor arrests.

“Not every arrest results in fingerprinting because local agencies don’t have to submit fingerprints for all arrests,” said Talley.

However, the federal government has stated that all arrests are fingerprinted in the Secure Communities program. But state law appears to carry more weight than federal law.

“Each state determines what types of criminal transactions are submitted to the FBI,” said Navas. “For example, a state may not submit fingerprints to the FBI for lower level criminal offenses, such as class C misdemeanors or traffic offenses. This may account for the discrepancy between the NC-SBI statistics and Secure Communities stats.”

Talley said that according to North Carolina state law, law enforcement agencies are only required to submit fingerprints for felony arrests.

While the federal program suggests using computers for running prints in local field offices,  SBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Wyatt Pettengil said some counties are still using fingerprint cards that can be rejected due to “poor quality images, incomplete descriptive information, or incorrect charge data.”

Using physical fingerprint cards can take time, and the cards are on a seven-day deadline. After one week, the fingerprints are tossed.

“The FBI and ICE have established a protocol that prohibits fingerprint images from searching ICE if the date of arrest is over seven days old,” said Pettengil. “Therefore, if the arrest card is not submitted to the SBI in a timely manner it may not meet the seven-day threshold.”

Without clarity, the program raises another question: Are officers more diligent in submitting to the FBI the fingerprints of foreign-born persons than they are with other people they arrest?

Federal officials and immigration attorneys say 100 percent compliance is necessary to ensure that local officials are not engaging in profiling by fingerprinting only those people whom they suspect of being illegal immigrants.

The failure to fingerprint and report roughly 30 percent of arrestees raises the possibility that sheriff’s offices are picking and choosing the people who will be subjected to database searches.

Federal, state and local officials said they could not explain the statistical discrepancy. Some expressed concern about the size of the mismatch, and immigration attorneys and advocates fear that the lack of checks and balances is creating issues of “insecurity” for the immigrant community.

“These discrepancies are just more proof that Secure Communities is one the most ill-conceived programs in immigration policy history,” said Marty Rosenbluth, executive director of the North Carolina Immigrant Rights Project. “The fact that ICE has “no idea” why these discrepancies exist, despite their boast that the program is designed to deter racial profiling, says it all.  How can they not know?”

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Story Behind the Story

When I applied for the IJJ Fellowship last autumn, I had just started focusing my social justice investigative reporting towards the immigration issue – an area of coverage woefully overlooked by local media outlets in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.

My interest was sparked as I heard stories from immigration attorneys and realized how necessary our understanding of the immigration issue has to be expanded beyond national rhetoric and policy makers to include the reality of what it means to be an immigrant in the United States and the Southeast.

My goal was to increase public awareness on the human rights violations of Latinos locally and nationally by providing a platform for voices to be heard and stories to be told.

Last December, I was following the incarceration and trials of a group of Raleigh- and Durham-based day laborers who had been swept up in an ICE raid when I received the news that I had been selected to be a part of the Immigration in the Heartland 2011 fellowship program.

I had no idea what to expect, but my IJJ fellowship exceeded my expectations.

On the first day our group of fellows arrived in Oklahoma, we attended a dinner and briefing by our hosts: IJJ Senior Fellows Warren Vieth and Frank Sotomayor. The session set the tone for an exciting week of intense classes, lectures, speakers, hands-on sessions and interviews.

To future IJJ Fellows, I would encourage you to consider the following words of advice – words I offer humbly, and in retrospect.

One, be well rested before you begin the weeklong conference. This isn’t a vacation; this is an intense and exciting week of being surrounded by thinkers and leaders who are going to provide you with a wealth of material and opportunities. Your week at Gaylord College will go by fast, and the information comes at you quickly, so be ready.

Second, as you work on your project proposal prior to attending, familiarize yourself with the speakers IJJ is bringing to the table; determine which speakers might be useful in assisting you in your initial reporting, and prepare your questions well in advance so that you can utilize each speaker’s availability on the spot. Read the materials and links IJJ will send you before the conference begins.

Third, it doesn’t matter where you are in the process of becoming an immigration reporter. Whether you’re a novice or a pro, you will be welcomed and given the tools you need to become a better writer and investigative reporter.

I was humbled by my colleagues on our first evening together. Surrounded by fellows who were well-known voices in radio and print media and senior fellows who have been covering this topic well before it drew national attention, those of us who were just starting out in this field might have felt inadequate or behind the curve, but that was never the case.

The Heartland project is unique in that the IJJ board has created a forum in which reporters from all backgrounds can come together in an open environment to learn, regardless of backgrounds and accumulated honors in immigration coverage.

Nothing will stand in the way of you having a fulfilling experience if you come to the conference with a willing spirit. All who attend are given the tools they need to succeed, whether they are new to immigration coverage or experts in the field, and that is the most important aspect of the fellowship experience.

What I learned during my IJJ Fellowship was not limited to immigration reporting, but applicable to every area of my reporting beat.

Particularly useful was the ethics session conducted by Sotomayor and IJJ Board Member Sharon Rosenhause. Covering immigration presents significant challenges, and we discussed scenarios and difficulties in covering subjects and individuals who are hiding their identities or fearful of speaking out because of their lack of documentation.

Sharon asked us to critically think and discuss ways in which to cover the immigration beat in a just and ethical manner. She told us to “just think the thing through,” which is deceptively simple advice that bears repeating.

With each social justice story I focused on post-fellowship, I thought of Sharon’s advice. I mentally stepped back from my interview subject and the story. I asked myself several questions – was the material and interview dialogue credible, ethical, fair and doing “no harm” to my interviewee? Was I making good ethical decisions? If the answer was yes, than I proceeded, if the answer was no, I reevaluated the subject and the story.

The session that influenced my project the most was a two-part class called “The Reporter’s Toolkit: TRAC & FOIA” led by IJJ Senior Fellows Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press and Dianne Solis of the Dallas Morning News.

While I had an idea what data I needed for my project, I wasn’t sure how to proceed in gathering the necessary pieces of information.

During Martha’s workshop session, she guided us through FOIA requests and how to find the contacts and information we needed for our reporting “toolkit.”

I was inspired to file FOIA requests with the Department of Homeland Security to better understand what funds were being received by the state of North Carolina through the Federal State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). While that particular topic was not an initial part of my project, the data I received and later wrote about was useful and the first of its kind in reporting on the policy side of the immigration issue. It would have never come about if Martha hadn’t challenged us to look for ways to use data and our utilize FOIA requests with an “outside-the-box” attitude.

Going into the fellowship, the core aspects of my project dealt with gathering and compiling statistical data from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Interoperability Statistics, and comparing the government’s computer-generated data with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s county arrests data. I worked on the period from Nov. 12, 2008, through Nov. 30, 2010.

My goal at matching these two numbers was to see if there was a numerical way to examine how well the Secure Communities program was working in the field and whether racial profiling was occurring.

Under the terms of the federal government’s Secure Communities program, local law enforcement agencies are required to fingerprint every person they arrest for any reason, and to forward those fingerprints to the FBI to crosscheck against federal databases containing the prints of known criminals and illegal immigrants.

But when I compared these two statistical reports – ICE vs NC-SBI – I discovered significant discrepancies in arrests and fingerprinting, which called into question the actual “safety” and impartiality of the Secure Communities program.

With my data and questions in hand, I began to contact ICE and SBI public information officers, as well as local law enforcement agencies and sheriffs, believing that I would get answers to the many questions that came out of my reporting.

However, after four months of data compilation and reporting and conducting interviews, it became obvious to me that there wouldn’t be an “easy” answer, or any conclusive results from this work. ICE was puzzled, and the SBI shrugged it off as a state law thing, and local law enforcement officers were defensive when asked about arrests and fingerprinting data. Each person I spoke with wasn’t prepared to consider the whys.

The Secure Communities program is implemented in every county in North Carolina. According to ICE’s mission statement, the program was designed to reduce the potential for racial profiling: “Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of every single individual arrested and booked into custody, including U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, are checked against immigration records – reducing the risk of discrimination or racial profiling.”

But the statistics I obtain call into question the claimed impartiality of the Secure Communities program. The program is presented as one thing in Washington, D.C., and supported by many policy-makers. But in the field, Secure Communities raises significant concerns for human rights activists and immigration attorneys.

The question remains: If ICE’s purpose is to prevent racial profiling under Secure Communities by booking and fingerprinting everyone who is arrested and running those individuals through federal and law enforcement databases, what could this mismatch in numbers indicate?

Are officers selecting the fingerprints of all foreign-born persons to send to the FBI, while not sending the prints of others?

Throughout my project with all its ups and downs, my project advisor, Warren Vieth, encouraged me to keep digging and keep searching for answers. When we came to the roadblock, he told me he considered  even the unanswered questions provocative and valuable. Without his support, I would have felt that my reporting project hadn’t been a success. I didn’t land a huge front-page splash, and reporters know that is an important part of our work.

But here is what I learned:

One, the questions that can’t be answered may be a story in themselves. Provocative questions are not presented in vain.

Two, don’t let a closed door become an obstacle you see as a failure. Sometimes the timing isn’t right. The reporting that I began may influence other reporters to examine ICE’s Interoperability Statistics and their state’s arrest and fingerprint data. It may have been too early for these questions to be answered for my project, but I believe that future reporters may be able to take this concept farther.

Three, covering immigration issues – policies, programs and individual stories – is still a new field of discovery for journalists. Bee gentle with yourself, and don’t let the complexities defeat your purpose.

Four, as investigative journalists, we are “watchdogs.” Even if we don’t score impressive articles or make the “news,” we have done our job if we force officials to look at data in a different light and unmasked some of the illusions surrounding the rhetoric.

Five, accept the unanswered, and know that each of us will have topics that we might not be able to synthesize into a “perfect” article. But you will and can grow from the process, if you can see an obstacle as a tool to growth and discovery.

I have grown by leaps and bounds as a reporter since my IJJ fellowship, and I almost envy the class of 2012 for the exciting discoveries and experiences you are about to begin. There is a reason why IJJ has so many senior fellows – once you become a part of the IJJ family, you keep coming back.

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