The Trump administration’s plan to collect DNA evidence from migrants detained in U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP) facilities will commence soon in the form of a 90-day pilot program in Detroit and Southwest Texas, CNN reported on Monday.
News of the plan first emerged in October, when the Department of Homeland Security told reporters that it wanted to collect DNA from migrants to detect “fraudulent family units,” including refugees applying for asylum at U.S. ports of entry.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) started using DNA tests to screen asylum seekers at the border last year over similar concerns, claiming that the tests were designed to fight human traffickers. The tests will apply to those detained both temporarily and for longer periods of time, covering nearly all people held by immigration officials.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the pilot program in a privacy assessment posted to its website on Monday. Per CNN, the pilot is a legal necessity before the agency revokes rules enacted in 2010 that exempt “migrants in who weren’t facing criminal charges or those pending deportation proceedings” from the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005. The pilot will involve U.S. Border Patrol agents collecting DNA from individuals aged 14-79 who are arrested and processed, as well as customs officers collecting DNA from individuals subject to continued detention or further proceedings.
According to the privacy assessment, U.S. citizens and permanent residents “who are being arrested or facing criminal charges” may have DNA collected by CBP or ICE personnel. All collected DNA will be sent to the FBI and stored in its Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a set of national genetic information databases that includes forensic data, missing persons, and convicts, where it would be held for as long as the government sees fit.
Those who refuse to submit to DNA testing could face class A misdemeanour charges, the DHS wrote.
DHS acknowledged that because it has to mail the DNA samples to the FBI for processing and comparison against CODIS entries, it is unlikely that agents will be able to use the DNA for “public safety or investigative purposes prior to either an individual’s removal to his or her home country, release into the interior of the United States, or transfer to another federal agency.” ACLU attorney Stephen Kang told the New York Times that DHS appeared to be creating “DNA bank of immigrants that have come through custody for no clear reason,” raising “a lot of very serious, practical concerns, I think, and real questions about coercion.”
The Times noted that last year, Border Patrol law enforcement directorate chief Brian Hastings wrote that even after policies and procedures were implemented, Border Patrol agents remained “not currently trained on DNA collection measures, health and safety precautions, or the appropriate handling of DNA samples for processing.”
U.S. immigration authorities held a record number of children over the fiscal year that ended in September 2019, with some 76,020 minors without their parents present detained. According to ICE, over 41,000 people were in DHS custody at the end of 2019 (in mid-2019, the number shot to over 55,000).
“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,” ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project staff attorney Vera Eidelman told the Times last year.