Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Strategic Issues Panel considers use of biometrics in immigration reform

As the University of Denver Strategic Issues Program (SIP) panel grapples with the problems presented by immigration, a recurrent question has emerged: how do officials tell whether someone is in this country legally if they can’t positively identify them?

“It appears that some form of identity card is going to be pivotal to our discussion,” panel leader Jim Griesemer said at the panel’s latest meeting June 25.

Throughout the winter and spring, panelists have heard from law enforcement, government and business leaders who repeatedly reported that verifying an immigrant’s identity continues to be a problem. Flimsy paper Social Security cards are some of the simplest forms of identification still in use, panelists have complained. And everything from driver’s licenses to so-called “green cards” can be forged.

After hearing expert testimony that called for a form of positive identification, the SIP panel on June 25 heard from John Woodward Jr., a CIA officer, public policy scholar, attorney and expert on managing biometrics.

Woodward told panelists there are methods of positive identification using biometrics and the technology to implement those methods right now. Already in use in many fields are fingerprinting, iris scans, retina scans and facial recognition programs. Other options include DNA, palm prints and voice recognition. Putting any solution to work in the field of immigration management, he said, is just a matter of political will and resources.

If there is the will, Woodward said, information can be gathered at “points of contact,” everything from border crossings to driver’s license offices, and that information can be funneled into central databases. The information could be used in two ways: to prove a person’s identity and to prevent several people from using the same identification.

But the use of that information would require some form of identification that would have to be presented at certain times.

“You can see, it starts to get controversial when we talk about ‘checkpoint events,’” Woodward said.

And he warned that even with biometrics, good data analysis requires good data entry and management.

“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “That’s primarily because we have these people called ‘humans’ who are involved in the system.”

The Strategic Issues Program panel expects to spend the summer reviewing material gathered through more than 30 interviews and looking for workable solutions to immigration problems that can be presented to leaders in government and industry at the conclusion of the process.

The nonpartisan SIP panel is made up of scholars and business, social and political experts. The goal is to craft a framework for immigration reform that will be presented in early December.

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