WASHINGTON—The Trump administration plans to begin taking DNA samples from migrants crossing the border or held in detention for use in a federal criminal database, a significant expansion of immigration laws that is certain to raise privacy concerns.
The new rule, posted by the Justice Department on Friday and set to take effect in April, will require immigration officers to collect cheek swabs from what could amount to hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants taken into federal custody each year, including migrants at the border and people asking for asylum.
The move, which is sure to face court challenges, injects a new civil-rights issue into the debate about immigration policy. It will amount to a significant expansion of the government’s DNA database, operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that primarily contains samples from people accused of committing serious crimes.
Collecting DNA samples from immigrants has long been one method floated to better track criminals who had once been in federal immigration custody but might not otherwise be known to law-enforcement officials. In 2005, Congress passed a sweeping new law giving the government more authority to DNA-test and fingerprint criminals, an expansion of government power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, though it permitted the Department of Homeland Security not to take these measures with immigrants in its custody. The Obama administration exercised that exemption, arguing such a collection effort would amount to an impossibly cumbersome task.
Officials with the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security told reporters on Thursday that the expansion brings the government in better compliance with that 2005 law. The Justice Department has also argued the administration feels compelled to move ahead with the plan because it could help the government better identify immigrants who might commit crimes in the future.
The move is part of the Trump administration’s broader shift to consider most immigrants entering the country—even those who come to legal ports of entry—as criminals. It has made all unauthorized immigrants targets for deportation, a departure from the Obama administration’s policy.