The Trump administration has today announced it will expand the collection of DNA from migrants crossing US borders. The information gathered will be provided to the FBI and added to a vast criminal database. In August 2019 63,989 migrants had been apprehended and detained at the US-Mexico border of which nearly 40% were minors.
DNA samples will be taken from hundreds of thousands of people booked into federal immigration custody each year, an unprecedented expansion of the use of technology to enforce the country’s immigration laws.
However, the practice of a government amassing mass biometric data on migrants raises serious privacy concerns for an already vulnerable population. Critics also question the legitimacy of compiling such data when a person is suspected of no crime other than crossing the border illegally.
The scheme is separate from the rapid DNA testing that already takes place at the US-Mexico border, used to identify adults falsely posing as children’s parents. Not much is known yet about this increased testing, including its purpose, although the New York Times has reported that the new rules would apply to children and those seeking asylum at legal ports of entry.
The announcement follows long-running calls for immigrants’ DNA to be recorded. Advocates for the policy argue that these records will assist in identifying criminals who have previously been in immigration custody but are otherwise unknown to the authorities. Congress had previously passed a law authorising the broad collection of DNA data in 2005, but at the time an exemption was put in place to protect immigrants.
Henry J. Kerner, from the Office of Special Counsel feels that immigration agencies have already been failing to carry out their full obligations under the law to collect DNA, saying:
“The agency’s noncompliance with the law has allowed subjects subsequently accused of violent crimes, including homicides and sexual assault, to elude detection even when detained multiple times by C.B.P. and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),”
The DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005 allows federal agencies to collect DNA from individuals in their custody, including those who are not American.
Law enforcement agencies can submit samples to the FBI from non-US citizens who are being detained and suspects who are arrested or convicted of state or federal crimes – such as crossing the border between ports of entry. However, it is not a requirement and homeland security has not vastly collected DNA samples up to this point.
The new programme would provide a comprehensive DNA profile of individuals who are tested. After the DNA samples are taken, they would be entered into the FBI’s national DNA database. Known as CODIS, the combined DNA Index System is used by law enforcement authorities to identify criminal suspects.
In supplying the FBI and other law enforcement with the DNA of immigration detainees, federal authorities open up an ethical debate about the use of DNA in criminal investigations.
One critic, Vera Eidelman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties said of the decision:
“That kind of mass collection alters the purpose of DNA collection from one of criminal investigation basically to population surveillance, which is basically contrary to our basic notions of a free, trusting, autonomous society,”
Eidelman also notes that because genetic material carries family connections, the data collection would have implications, not only for those in immigration custody, but also their family members who might be US citizens or legal residents.
The Trump administration is yet to provide a timeline for the rollout of the regulation but said a working group was meeting weekly to introduce it as soon as possible. While DNA sampling is non-invasive, there is a method for proper collection, and sample storing requires training. It is not clear how many officers will be trained in collection.
The announcement comes as part of a wider push amongst the administration to criminalise unauthorised border crossings and even those presenting themselves at legal ports of entry to seek asylum. This week it has been shockingly uncovered that Trump had suggested shooting migrants in the legs that are attempting to cross the border, as well as the proposal that a moat be filled with alligators or snakes along the Mexican border.