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Stamford woman patents way to track immigration status of people

Stamford Advocate | May 15, 2006

Catherine Haala travels to South America and Central America and sees the poverty and corruption that drives immigrants to the United States.

But as a former partner in a restaurant, she knows how difficult it can be for an employer to verify an immigrant's status.

"I feel like I've been on every side of this issue," Haala said.

Her background led the Stamford woman to develop a patented system that would use computer technology and DNA, fingerprints, handprints, retinal scans, saliva or voice sample identification to track immigration status. Haala received two patent approvals in August and November.

Haala, 50, a TV commercial model and founder of The World is Our Neighborhood, a nonprofit organization that helps poor, disabled and elderly people around the world, said she came up with the idea shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The patents have been in the making for several years; she is waiting to hear whether a computer company will design the technology. Because the patents involve national security and immigration, federal government officials would have to decide whether to use the system. Joanna Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the department cannot comment on technology or systems that have not been implemented.

Haala said Americans and non-citizens would use the technology to enter into any transaction. People would not be required to carry separate IDs because information about their status could be incorporated into driver's licenses, credit cards and other documents in a bar code or similar technology, she said.

People entering the United States as tourists, workers or students would have identifications that expire when their legal status expires, Haala said. American citizens would not have expiration dates.

"This is about the future. This is about accountability," she said. "This is about a system so we can have people come to this country as tourists, students and visitors and welcome them, but also hold people accountable."

A person whose legal status expires would not be able to use credit cards and other documents. The system could be expanded so that some form of ID would have to be swiped before a person enters a museum, said Dinesh Agarwal, Haala's patent attorney in Alexandria, Va. The example illustrates ways the system could be used, Agarwal said.

"The way the system works is transaction-related," Agarwal said. "It identifies people by immobilizing them in a society. It operates as a prescreening to anyone entering any kind of transaction with anyone else in society."

The system does not require profiling or discrimination because everyone would use it, he said, comparing it to E-ZPass, the electronic toll system.

Haala said she is not trying to set immigration policy because government officials would decide how to use the system. For example, they could use an electronic database to control the threshold value of transactions to be monitored, such as only those of more than $100, she said. The system is not designed to rid the nation of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, she said.

"I think it would be an easy way to set up a system that would make it much easier for people to stay here and hold them accountable," said Haala, who declined to say how much she invested in developing the patents. "I hope that it could be used in a good way so people don't have to live under the radar."

Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy for the National Immigration Law Center, which promotes the rights of low-income immigrants, said such a system would raise many concerns. He commented on the idea in general because he is not familiar with the details of Haala's system.

"Proposals like this suggest to me that people misunderstand the problem," Bernstein said. "Immigration is a social, political, economic and historical phenomenon, and for the most part it's not going to be solved by technology. . . . The implications for all Americans from a tool like that are somewhat scary. It's more of a question about privacy and freedom, not just the immigrants."

City Rep. Philip Berns, D-16, an immigration lawyer and activist, questioned the wisdom behind such a system.

"Is it not really a national ID card -- the very thing America has put off for decades?" Berns said.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, many proposals have been made aimed at tightening immigration laws and issuing driver's licenses and other identification. Congress last year passed the Real ID Act, which imposes federal regulations on how driver's licenses are issued and managed.

William Dunlap, a professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, said it's unlikely the government would implement such a system because it resembles a national ID program.

"I don't think this raises constitutional issues so much as practical and political issues," said Dunlap, who teaches constitutional law and national security. "It could create serious nightmarish situations, and so far our systems haven't really worked smoothly enough that I think people would be willing to adopt a program like that."

Haala said she came up with her idea when she learned some of the Sept. 11 terrorists entered the country legally but stayed after their status expired. Had her system been in place, she said, they would not have been able to buy airplane tickets or conduct other transactions.


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