The U.S. Border Patrol has arrested tens of thousands of people with criminal records, including some suspected of murder, rape and child molestation, since the agency last year installed a fingerprinting system that identifies criminals among the 1 million undocumented immigrants apprehended annually.
The high-tech system is part of a broader effort by the Department of Homeland Security to create a "virtual border" to stop terrorists and those with criminal pasts from entering the United States.
The fingerprints of all detained undocumented immigrants are now matched against the FBI's national criminal database through scanners installed at all 137 Border Patrol stations along the Mexican and Canadian borders. To process a person, all 10 fingerprints are rolled across a scanner, and the digitized images are compared against the database's 47 million records. The results usually come back within minutes.
About 30,000 of the 680,000 migrants arrested from May through December were identified as having criminal records, compared with about 2,600 during the same period in 2002 -- an increase of more than eleven-fold. Criminal undocumented immigrants are those with past arrests or convictions for crimes ranging from shoplifting to murder.
Homicide, rape suspects
Since its start as a pilot program in 2003, the system has identified about 24 people suspected of homicide, 55 of rape and 225 of assault, according to Border Patrol statistics.
The system -- installed during a six-month period that ended in September -- has made it difficult for suspects to flee the country and then return. That was common in the past when illegal border-crossers who had criminal records or outstanding warrants often were simply deported because agents lacked tools to investigate criminal histories quickly.
"You never knew who the people were who you arrested," said Dale Landers, a supervisory agent who patrols the back country east of San Diego. "This guy might look like someone who works in the fields, but he could have been a suspected killer."
Some suspects re-entered the United States and committed more crimes. One of them was Rafael Resendez-Ram'rez, a train-riding drifter who had gone on a murder spree in Texas, Illinois and Kentucky and was captured and released by border agents in 1999 despite his presence on the FBI's most-wanted list. He went on to kill four more people before turning himself in.
The surge in arrests probably will strain the ability of federal agencies to house and prosecute criminal undocumented immigrants, law enforcement experts say.
How the Border Patrol handles the people it identifies depends on their records. People who have active warrants against them are handed over to the agencies that issued the warrants. Those with violent criminal records can be prosecuted for illegally re-entering the country and face potential 20-year prison terms.
People stopped at the border who have prior convictions for non-violent crimes -- the majority of cases -- are usually expelled from the country, Border Patrol officials say.
The technology overhaul, experts say, has greatly enhanced policing on the border. "It's a great step forward . . . a great aid to law enforcement," said Joseph King, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The arrests provide a potential bright spot for homeland security. The department has been criticized for being slow to take advantage of new technologies that confirm the identities of people entering the United States.
Similar systems have been installed at many U.S. ports of entry and airports, where only a few visitors are screened. Eventually, homeland security officials wants to scan the fingerprints of all foreign visitors to the United States.
Terrorist watch lists
The FBI criminal database contains terrorist watch lists as well as information on warrants and criminal histories.
Murder and rape suspects caught in recent months have been wanted by police agencies from Santa Maria to New York City, Border Patrol officials said. Some had been on the run for years.
The value of the new technology has been most dramatically demonstrated in Arizona -- the main crossing point for undocumented immigrants -- where agents last October apprehended an average of 40 criminal undocumented immigrants a day, according to Border Patrol statistics. Most of those apprehended have been Mexican citizens.
Lacking the investigative capability or facilities to house detainees during background checks, the Border Patrol would return to Mexico most of those with criminal pasts.
In at least two instances, the results were tragic. One was the Resendez-Ram'rez case. In the other, in 2002, V'ctor Manual Batres was captured and returned to Mexico without agents learning of his extensive criminal history. After re-entering the country, Batres traveled to Oregon, where he allegedly raped two Roman Catholic nuns, killing one. He later pleaded guilty to one count each of murder and rape.