The Trump administration is pushing ahead with a project that could lead to the government collecting DNA from hundreds of thousands of detained immigrants, some as young as 14 years old, alarming civil rights advocates. Once fully underway, the DNA program could become the largest U.S. law enforcement effort to systemically collect genetic material from people not accused of a crime.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol announced in early January that it would begin a pilot project to take genetic samples from detained migrants held in Detroit, on the northern border, and Eagle Pass, on the southern.
Using cheek swab kits, Immigration and Customs Enforcement also intends to collect DNA from those in its custody through a separate pilot project. ICE will designate a detention center where the collection will take place as part of a future project, according to a Department of Homeland Security report. Detainees who refuse to cooperate in the DNA collection can be charged with a federal misdemeanor, the report asserts.
The CBP pilot program, announced Jan. 6, is the beginning of a Justice Department plan to roll out mass DNA collection from most immigrant detainees. The department has the authority to determine whose DNA is taken and stored in an FBI database, and last October it published a proposed rule to expand collection from immigrants, saying it could identify criminal suspects.
If adopted, the plan would allow Homeland Security to collect DNA from an estimated 743,000 detained immigrants annually.
Civil libertarians consider the proposal a gross violation of privacy because detained immigrants, including those asking to enter the United States to apply for asylum, are put in civil rather than criminal custody.
The plan “lacks justification and seeks to miscast the children and adults in immigration detention as violent criminals who pose a danger to our society,” said Vera Eidelman of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Eidelman said the government could potentially use the DNA to link immigrants to family members, who also could be targeted by law enforcement.