[Clips] How Tools of War On Terror Ensnare Wanted Citizens

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Mon Oct 31 04:35:36 PST 2005

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 The Wall Street Journal

  October 31, 2005

 New Dragnet
  How Tools of War
  On Terror Ensnare
  Wanted Citizens
 Border, Immigration Agencies
  Tap Into FBI Database;
  Questions About Privacy
 Mr. Samori's Speeding Ticket
 October 31, 2005; Page A1

 Driving in from Mexico last March, Jaime Correa was stopped by federal
 inspectors at a border post near San Diego. They fed the 21-year-old U.S.
 citizen's name into a computer with a fast link to the federal government's
 huge database of criminal files. Readout: Wanted in Los Angeles for
 attempted murder.

 Another citizen, Issah Samori, walked into a federal office in Chicago the
 previous year. He is 60, a cabbie, and was there to help his wife get a
 green card. An immigration clerk fed his name into the same computer.
 Readout: Wanted in Indiana for speeding.

 The border guards handed Mr. Correa over to the San Diego police, who
 locked him up. The Chicago police came to collect Mr. Samori. He spent the
 night on a concrete slab in a precinct cell.

 Detentions of American citizens by immigration authorities for offenses
 large and small are becoming routine -- and have begun to stir a debate
 over the appropriate use of the latest technologies in the war on terror.
 Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, immigration computers have been hooked
 up to the expanding database of criminal records and terrorist watch lists
 maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The computers are now in
 use at all airports, most border crossings, and even in domestic
 immigration offices, where clerks decide on applications for permanent
 residence and citizenship.

 The screenings are mainly meant to trap foreigners, and especially foreign
 terrorists, but they have also proved to be a tool in the hunt for American
 citizens wanted by the police. In 2003, U.S. Customs and Border Protection
 says that it alone caught 4,555 Americans this way. In 2004, the number
 rose to 6,189.

 Some law enforcers applaud that tally. Citizens with nothing to hide, they
 argue, shouldn't care if their names are put through a criminal search, and
 criminals should have no "expectation of privacy." The arrests have brought
 in some serious offenders, like Mr. Correa, a Los Angeles gang member, who
 was accused of a drive-by shooting. He was convicted this month of assault
 with a firearm, and sentenced to eight years in prison. There have been
 others like him: citizens wanted for armed robbery, murder and sex crimes.

 But some legal scholars and defenders of privacy worry that easy access to
 criminal databases is giving rise to indiscriminate detentions of citizens
 for minor offenses, and to a "mission creep" that is blurring the line
 between immigration control and crime control. Routine encounters like Mr.
 Samori's, some say, shouldn't give civil servants a "free shot" to fish for
 records unrelated to the administrative purpose at hand.

 It isn't as if those the computer snags are being "pulled over for a broken
 tail-light," says former Atlanta policeman Mark Harrold, who teaches law at
 the University of Mississippi. Rather, as he sees it, they are being caught
 as they engage in civil pursuits "like going in for a marriage license."

 Born in Ghana, Mr. Samori has lived for 35 years in a brick house on
 Chicago's South Side. When he and his new Ghanaian wife, Hilda, sat down in
 an immigration clerk's cubicle in mid-2004, Mr. Samori knew that as a
 citizen he had a right to sponsor her for permanent residence. The two came
 ready to show that their marriage was genuine. But the clerk just stared at
 his computer.

 "He said we can't do the interview," Mr. Samori recalls. "I asked why. He
 said, because we have an arrest warrant on you. I told him, whatever it is,
 I'm ready to face it."

 The clerk reached for his phone. Two officers appeared. Hilda Samori cried
 as her husband was led out. He spent three nights in jail on his way to
 Indiana court, where his reckless-driving charge, a misdemeanor, was
 eventually set aside. Mrs. Samori had to wait a year and a half for her
 green-card application to be reopened.

 Immigration service officials say reporting wanted citizens has become
 standard procedure. "If you have unfinished business with the police, it's
 best to take care of that before you come in asking for a service or a
 benefit," says Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and
 Immigration Services, the border-protection agency's domestic sister. Apart
 from confirming a citizen sponsor's identity, he says, clerks search for
 warrants to make sure that no one on federal property poses "a threat to
 public safety or national security."

 On the borders, the same principles have long applied. Like the immigration
 service, the border agency now belongs to the Department of Homeland
 Security. Border inspectors, who wear uniforms and carry guns, are the
 first line of defense against terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal
 immigrants trying to enter the U.S. When they face suspicious people --
 mostly with dubious documents -- they used to hold them for long security
 checks. Today, border inspectors need only swipe passports through readers
 for warrants and watch lists to pop up. Millions of citizens returning from
 abroad now have their names scanned this way.

 Behind the new dragnet is the FBI's National Crime Information Center, a
 repository of 40 million records covering everything from terrorists to
 stolen boats. On a single day in 2005 -- May 28 -- the center handled a
 record 5.3 million queries. Its biggest user now, with 1.5 million daily
 searches, is Customs and Border Protection.

 "There was authority before 9/11 to stop people, but the software makes it
 easier than ever," says Jeffrey Lustick, a lawyer in Bellingham, Wash., a
 town near the Canadian border where these arrests are commonplace. "What
 was theoretical has become real."

 The same FBI database is also available now to clerks who carry out the
 duties of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service. Each year, the
 clerks, who wear street clothes and sit behind a desk, evaluate over a
 million applications for citizenship and permanent residence, most
 sponsored by green-card holders and citizens. While clerks at other federal
 agencies rarely have reason to see FBI files, the immigration-service's
 clerks do.

 Because lawbreaking can disqualify applicants, all must submit to
 fingerprinting and a full criminal-history check. The job used to be done
 by hand with the FBI's help. Now fingerprints have gone digital, and
 immigration clerks can hunt for applicants by name on the FBI warrants
 list. Citizen sponsors aren't fingerprinted, but "in the course of doing
 our business," says Mr. Bentley, their names are checked against the
 warrants list as well.

 "When an individual comes into our office," he adds, "if there's an
 outstanding warrant, we will call local law enforcement and let them know
 the person's here."

 The policy hasn't been announced, but immigration lawyers around the
 country say they have slowly been made aware of it over the past two or
 three years -- often by surprise.

 Paul Zoltan, a Dallas immigration lawyer, says his foreign client's citizen
 wife was arrested in 2003 at her marriage interview and charged with
 shoplifting. "My trust in your office has been deeply shaken," the lawyer
 wrote the immigration service, complaining that the arrest had nothing to
 do with the immigration service's job. He got no reply, and the service has
 no comment. A citizen husband at an interview in Chicago was held for hours
 on a Georgia cocaine-possession warrant, says his wife's lawyer, Rebecca
 Reyes. The warrant was "years old," she says. Georgia wasn't interested;
 the husband was released.

 Jim Austin watched as his client's citizen wife was arrested for
 trespassing in Kansas City, Mo. Rebecca White took her foreign client's two
 children into a bathroom in Seattle so they wouldn't see their citizen
 father taken away; the charge was failure to return household rental
 equipment. Also in Seattle, a citizen sponsoring his wife's application was
 jailed overnight on a warrant for someone else.

 "They apologized," says Diana Moller, a lawyer who represented the wife,
 explaining why the man preferred not to give an interview. "He wants to
 leave it at that."

 Arrests of this kind have become common enough that many lawyers now quiz
 citizens about warrants before sending them into immigration interviews.
 The service doesn't count the citizens it arrests; if any dangerous
 criminals have been among them, it can't say.

 Customs and Border Protection can. When it nets citizens on their way into
 the country who are wanted for serious crimes, it puts out press releases.
 Two standouts from the Mexican border: a man from North Carolina wanted for
 multiple sex crimes against children in Arizona and Massachusetts; and a
 young couple on the run from Colorado, both wanted for committing a double
 murder. And one from the Canadian border: an escaped robber from Seattle
 driving a stolen car with a shotgun in the trunk and an Uzi in his luggage.

 "This technology is a fast, effective weapon in the war on terror," one
 announcement quotes the agency's chief, Robert C. Bonner, as saying, "but
 also gives our agents a means to apprehend criminals and fugitives of every

 At airports, the border agency's screening for fugitives has become still
 more efficient with the passage of a new antiterror law requiring flights
 from overseas to transmit passenger lists before landing. Now, inspectors
 can organize welcoming parties in advance.

 "They're surprised, let me tell you," says a former inspector at Los
 Angeles Airport who asked not to be named. Often, his warrants were for Las
 Vegas gambling debts. "Couples come back from Canczn and the husband has to
 explain. The wife says, 'Why didn't you tell me?' I've seen tears. I've
 seen breakdowns."

 In 2003, the Transportation Security Administration, also part of Homeland
 Security, floated the idea of screening all passengers for warrants,
 citizens included, before they board domestic flights. The TSA's goal was
 to "ensure that passengers do not sit next to known terrorists and wanted
 murderers." After an outcry across the board -- from the American Civil
 Liberties Union to the American Conservative Union -- it backed off, and
 now is rolling out a system that limits such searches to terrorist-watch

 At the immigration service, the authority to run checks on citizens dates
 back to at least 2002, the service says in a statement. That's when the FBI
 granted the old INS access to "certain" files "for the purpose of
 adjudicating immigration-benefit applications." The new service says it
 derives limited access to files on citizens from that deal with the FBI.

 The arrangement comes as news to legal experts and law-enforcement
 officials, including Judson Barce, the prosecutor in Benton County, Ind. "A
 civil authority ran a criminal check?" he says. "How do they do that?"

 It was thanks to the search run by a Chicago immigration clerk that Mr.
 Barce was able to bring Issah Samori to justice.

 As soon as the clerk said the word "warrant," Mr. Samori guessed what it
 was about. Six months earlier, on a Sunday drive to visit a relative, he
 was heading south in his Camry on a state highway when a Benton County
 police car pulled him over.

 The patrolman said Mr. Samori had hit 86 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone,
 fast enough to be reckless in Benton. Mr. Samori says he called the county
 to get a court date, but no appointment letter ever reached his house. That
 was the last he thought about the ticket until he and his wife went in for
 their marriage interview.

 After the immigration clerk found the warrant Benton County issued because
 Mr. Samori had missed his court date, he spent two nights in Chicago-area
 jails. Then Benton's sheriff arrived to drive him, in handcuffs, 70 miles
 to Indiana, where Mr. Samori spent his third night in a cell.

 In court the next day, he didn't contest the charge. "I just wanted to get
 it over," he says. In return for a $400 bond, he was set free. He returned
 a month later with proof that he had taken a defensive-driving course. The
 reckless-driving charge was dismissed. Less the sheriff's expenses for
 driving down from Chicago, he got a refund of $203.98.

 At the end of July, after an 18-month pause, the Samoris sat down once
 again at a clerk's desk in Chicago's federal building to complete their
 green-card interview. They brought a pile of papers and an album of wedding
 pictures to prove their marriage is real. They are still waiting for the
 immigration service to make its decision.

 R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
 The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
 44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
 "... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
 [predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
 experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
 Clips mailing list
 Clips at philodox.com

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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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