Since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has found little funding for his “big, beautiful wall.” In the meantime, however, another acquisition promised to deter unauthorized immigrants is coming to the border: iris recognition devices. Thirty-one sheriffs, representing every county along the U.S.-Mexico border, voted unanimously on April 3 to adopt tools that will capture, catalogue, and compare individuals’ iris data, for use both in jails and out on patrol. Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies, the company behind the push, has offered the sheriffs a free three-year trial, citing law enforcement’s difficulties in identifying unauthorized immigrants whose fingerprints can be disfigured through manual labor or self-inflicted wounds.
Iris recognition is just the latest surveillance technology helping fortify what the White House hopes will make up a “digital wall,” a concept that many border sheriffs view as less intrusive than Trump’s envisioned 30-foot barricade stretching from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California. For law enforcement, the tool promises to help identify people without reliable fingerprints and to deter repeat border crossers. And for Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies, which frequently goes by BI2, rapid border expansion means its existing national iris database will receive a huge influx of biometric information on unauthorized immigrants, boosting its product’s capabilities to potential law enforcement clients across the country.
While this high-tech approach to immigration enforcement has not generated anything close to the controversy of Trump’s proposed wall, the campaign to expand iris scan collection on the border is of a piece with the president’s denunciations of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.
According to John Leonard, senior vice president of BI2, the company’s decision to give away this technology was, in part, motivated by law enforcement’s alleged struggles with violent unauthorized immigrants. “The frustration law enforcement has is this: ‘Alright, I got this criminal, the guy raped three kids. He’s back in my community again. I don’t even know who he is, and the federal government has never given me what I need,'” Leonard said during a video call with The Intercept.
“You get all these people that say, ‘Well Trump is going after all these illegals, these immigrants, who have made America great.’ Well there’s a lot of immigrants that have made it great, but there’s a lot of assholes, too,” he said. “So BI2 is stepping up to the plate and donating this.”
In the coming months, BI2’s iris recognition devices will be installed in every sheriff’s department along the U.S.-Mexico border. Each department will receive both a stationary iris capture device for inmate intake facilities and, eventually, a mobile version, according to Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez of Val Verde County, Texas, who currently serves as the president of the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition.
The technology works by taking a high-resolution image of a person’s iris with a special infrared illumination camera, and then creating an individualized iris template based on that image. The templates exploit nearly 240 unique characteristic elements in the iris, compared to the 40 to 60 used for fingerprints, resulting in far fewer false matches. To make an identification, BI2’s iris recognition program compares an individual’s iris against the over 987,000 iris scans held in its private database, which collects images from over 180 law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide.
In May, I traveled to Wayne County, North Carolina, to observe the sheriff’s department’s new BI2 iris unit in action. Sgt. Delbert Edwards, an older man in gray, stood at his computer terminal, instructing me to step about eight inches away from a small black lens mounted on a counter. Three red lights flashed in my left eye, then a blue one. Edwards beckoned me to tilt my head back, and suddenly, a green dot popped onto the screen. The camera reflexively tilted upward, having taken what it needed from me. “Right, there you go, perfect,” Edwards said, glancing at a window on his screen where black and white images of my disembodied eyes stared back at him.
Edwards then watched as a green bar zipped back and forth under the iris image, checking against an inmate he picked at random and against hundreds of thousands of other irises captured from inmates across the country. After 20 seconds a message appeared: “Individual was not verified, and the irises didn’t match anybody else.” Behind the message was an image of the county inmate Edwards tested my iris against. On the screen, I could see a woman with brown hair, an orange jumpsuit, and a blank stare.
Sheriff Omar Lucio of Cameron County, Texas, is a big fan of BI2’s iris system. He will be one of the first border sheriffs using it. When I met Lucio in April, the white-haired sheriff sported a dark brown uniform with a cross of gold buttons and a shiny badge over his heart. Above his old-school mustache, his eyes twinkled as he praised the coming iris installation.
“The wall is not going to prevent it. Technology is the way to go,” Lucio said, referring to unauthorized immigration. “It’s not unusual for people caught illegally from Mexico to give fake names and date of births. But it doesn’t matter what you use if we have your features — your iris, your fingerprints. You can use a hundred different names. We still can say, ‘This is the guy.’”
Martinez, the head of the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition, hopes that the mobile version of BI2’s iris scanners will help his deputies when out in the field along the border in Val Verde County. “Let’s say you have an individual who doesn’t want to identify himself. If he’s not suspected of anything, without this tool, we would let him go,” Martinez said in a phone call with The Intercept. “But if we are able to get the iris scanned out in the field, having some probable cause to do so, we can find out if there’s something on him.”
The templates generated from iris images taken with BI2’s mobile application can be compared against hundreds of thousands of other iris templates in just under 20 seconds. The scans are also automatically saved into BI2’s national database, BI2’s Leonard confirmed in an email to The Intercept. Leonard, however, cautioned that ambient light could in some cases interfere with the capture process outdoors.
Giving law enforcement the ability to check and collect people’s irises for criminal history and, in effect, their citizenship information during stops could lead to racial profiling, said Nathan Wessler, staff attorney with the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “In this country, we’ve long resisted being a ‘show me your papers’ society, but this moves us to that because you increasingly can’t avoid your identity being scooped up in public,” Wessler told The Intercept. “Racial profiling is a serious concern, especially Latinos or people of color are at greater risk for iris checks simply for the color of their skin.”
The 31 border counties’ acquisition of these tools will also help rapidly build up BI2’s private iris database. At present, the database is housed by a third-party vendor in an undisclosed location in San Antonio, Texas, and in three other disaster backup facilities. The database is the largest of its kind in North America, according to Leonard.
The bigger the database, the more valuable it becomes to law enforcement. “If he doesn’t have any criminal record before, you don’t have anything. But once we do this” — scan the iris — “we’re going to have that record. We’re enrolling and you’re going to be there,” said Lucio, the Cameron County sheriff, of a hypothetical detainee. “When he’s arrested, even if he gave you a fake name at the beginning, he’s not going to fool anybody because his record is there.”
Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s civil liberties team, said local law enforcement should not be collecting biometric data to help federal immigration agencies, like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Just because you are walking in a border town and a cop says, ‘Hey, can I talk to you?’ you have no diminished expectations of privacy, and your biometrics should not be collected,” Schwartz told The Intercept. “Whatever legitimate interest police have in capturing biometrics to do ordinary law enforcement jobs, it is not proper to share that information with ICE.” Currently, ICE has direct access to many law enforcement databases.
Lucio acknowledged such technological improvements will put unauthorized immigrants at far greater risk for prison time. “No question about it. Some people have been arrested and they’re coming from across or from another county, so not going to give you any kind of a name,” Lucio said. “They know if you’re arrested a second time, it’s a federal crime” — referring to the stiff federal charges for immigrants caught re-entering the country without authorization.
Kelly Lytle Hernandez, an associate professor in the University of California, Los Angeles’s history department, argues the legal consequences of this development tie in to a much larger story about the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’s particularly interesting that this technology is being sold as a way to identify ‘chronic offenders’ of unauthorized re-entry, a crime that was invented in 1929 by Coleman Livingston Blease, a white supremacist senator from South Carolina who wanted to control the in-flow of Mexicans,” Hernandez said in an interview. “Any technology promising to ratchet up unauthorized re-entry charges is obviously wrapped up in that history.”
BI2’s expansionary push along the border comes on the heels of new business opportunities presented by Trump’s immigration enforcement push. On April 12, the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition, the group BI2 is partnering with in its three-year iris scan pilot program, requested a grant of $750,000 from the Department of Justice to “improve and expand the biometric identification capabilities of the 31 sheriff’s offices along the U.S. and Mexico border.” In a phone call, Leonard told The Intercept that such grant negotiations are “strictly between the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the sheriffs,” adding, “It’s their money and they can allocate it as they propose.”
However, according to a source familiar with the negotiations, a week after the sheriffs’ grant request was issued, Susan Richmond Johnson, a lobbyist with John Ashcroft’s TAG Holdings, attempted to set up meetings about the request with Danielle Cutrona, a senior adviser to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and some sheriffs. Johnson hoped to bring BI2 president Sean Mullin into an eventual follow-up meeting, according to the source, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the matter and feared professional reprisal. TAG Holdings is an investor in BI2 and Johnson was an adviser to Ashcroft when he was attorney general during the Bush administration. Neither Johnson nor Mullin responded to The Intercept’s requests for comment.
Leonard did not confirm if any such follow-up took place. While some border sheriffs had a call with Justice Department officials about the grant request in the final week of May, he said, “We as a vendor are not able to listen in.”
Over the last 12 years years, BI2’s introduction of iris technology into law enforcement departments across the country has been gradual. In contrast to other countries, especially in the developing world, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have far less incentive to switch to iris identification because so much fingerprinting infrastructure already exists. “Other countries are developing from the ground up, so iris is appealing because it is considered one of the most accurate and stable biometrics across time,” said Clare Garvie, a fellow at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, in a phone call with The Intercept. “Here, we have legacy databases of faces and fingerprints, so the cost and time to deploy those biometric systems is much lower and more appealing.”
The long-standing use of other biometric systems in law enforcement circles has meant that private sector companies like BI2 play a large role in pushing iris identification infrastructure. Law enforcement officials say they don’t worry about the security of the biometric data they collect because BI2 is in charge of holding it for them. “The data is on the server, which is managed by BI2, so we don’t have to manage any data of that sort,” said Binit Nagori, an IT staffer at the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections. “Our officers just scan it and send it to them. We do not worry about the data. I believe BI2 has the data in a national database.”
Schwartz, the EFF lawyer, worries that law enforcement agencies are not doing enough to ensure residents’ sensitive data is protected. “If the government is saying we just capture the data, push a button, and vendor takes care of it, that is wholly inadequate,” he said. “Every time the data is stored or transmitted there is a risk of breach. And, unlike an address or social security number, you can’t change your iris. So if the government is going to purchase tools from vendors that amass biometric data, it is necessary that they employ privacy officers who know how to prevent security breaches and move the data securely.”
This private sector leadership in the adoption of iris tools, however, means that BI2 enjoys far more access to and control over criminal justice data than one might expect. Sitting in his cabin in North Carolina, Leonard shared a screen with me and used BI2’s interface to log into two law enforcement databases — one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana.
“Give me the last name of anybody you think might be in the jail,” Leonard instructed me while he was logged into the D.C. Department of Corrections database.
“Garcia,” I said.
He typed in the name Garcia, and a list of inmates popped up, one of whom he selected at random. A new screen then appeared showing the mug shot of a man whose race category was labeled “H.” Next to this image, on my screen, I could also see fields for his social security number, date of birth, gender, booking number, and a few other categories, which, for other mugshots, were filled out but left blank on this entry. Leonard moved on to pick another inmate to show me how iris verification would work.
Leonard clicked on another inmate. “He’s a white guy, OK, he’s one of the only white guys I could find basically,” said Leonard, who then scanned his own eyes, adding them to the program. After about 20 seconds, gray images of Leonard’s eyes disappeared from my screen and a message popped up noting that his irises did not match those of the inmate. The message said the user on the system could click to see the real identity of the irises. Leonard then clicked through and an image of him, sitting in his cabin wearing a hoodie, appeared on the screen.
“This is why it would be important on the border,” Leonard said. “Because as you build, people lie all the time.”
Much like Trump on the campaign trail, BI2 and some border sheriffs highlight notorious stories of violent criminal immigrants to argue for iris identification. During my visit to Cameron County, for example, Lucio mentioned the story of Angel Maturino Resendiz, a serial killer from Mexico who was executed by Texas in 2006.
“I’ll give you a true story that happened with an individual that was from Mexico, so you know about it. He was called the railroad rapist, or killer, OK?” said Lucio, who paused, unable to remember the story exactly. Beckoning to a nearby deputy to remind him of the character, Lucio continued, “Rodriguez was known as the railroad killer, Mike, or rapist?” The deputy leaned in close to his ear and told him the character’s real name.
“Yeah, it was Resendiz, wasn’t it?” Lucio said, now confident in his recollection. “This guy was from Mexico, a young guy, and he used to ride the railroads. And he would go to a place or city or what have you, and he would probably rape somebody or kill. So he was picked up several times, but he would give a false name and then he would be released, so by the time we get the information … the individual would be released, cross here, take off, and go back to Mexico and come back again. I think he killed about three or four people like that.”
Leonard showed me two images of a dark-skinned, middle-aged man with a buzz cut in an orange and gray jumpsuit. Under each mug shot was a different Hispanic or Latino name, and above each was a small thumbnail of a hand with crimson splotches cut across his fingertips.
“Now it’s obvious looking at the two people that this is the same guy, no question about that,” Leonard continued, scrolling his mouse between the two images of the inmate. “But he had surgically cut his fingerprints off — literally had them cut off by a doctor in the Dominican Republic, where’s he’s from,” Leonard said. “This guy was wanted on seven counts of homicide in Texas and Arizona. And we caught him because of his eyes, not because he told the truth, not because his fingerprints worked. It’s a perfect reason why fingerprints can’t be depended upon, you’re not going to cut out your eyes.”
Hernandez, the UCLA professor, contended that these grizzly tales of violence are cherry-picked to paint unauthorized immigrants with a broad criminal brush. The narrative may work to sell surveillance expansion, she argued, but also bolsters unfounded racial hatred against immigrant communities.
“The argument that there are extraordinarily violent individuals living within these populations has always been a part of immigrant exclusion projects,” Hernandez said. “Especially for Mexican-Americans, there was a clear shift in the middle of the 1950s, after Operation Wetback” — a 1950s crackdown on immigration rife with civil rights violations — “which was supposed to have solved the problem of immigration but didn’t actually stop it. So to rationalize the ongoing immigration, authorities explicitly no longer spoke about immigrants as workers, but as criminals. We’ve been stuck with that discourse ever since.”
BI2’s iris surveillance expansion on the border is moving ahead full steam despite these concerns. According to Leonard, the El Paso County sheriff’s department now has iris identification up and running, and Cameron County is next. Leonard says these installations will help authorities finally gain “control” of the border by documenting the undocumented.
“Right now, there is nothing like this on the border because the federal government has never given law enforcement agencies the technology to differentiate anybody in the field for any reason,” Leonard said. “That’s why we have so many illegal aliens: They just get in, and we don’t know who the hell they are and who they’re not.”
Hernandez, however, predicts that BI2’s iris solution will fail to stop migration flows, just as every law enforcement strategy before it failed. “This is just another example of profit making in immigration control, which seems to be on the rise with this administration,” Hernandez said. “We have always seen different waves of investment in technology, but they never have an impact on immigration. Yet we remain eternally convinced this stuff will save us from the larger problems of the border.”