Trump Administration Is Collecting Detained Immigrants’ DNA in Pilot Program

Supermajority Education Fund

January 27, 2020

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would launch a pilot program on Jan. 6 through which they would collect DNA from anyone in custody who is fingerprinted either at the Eagle Pass Port of Entry in southern Texas or near the Detroit sector to the north. The DNA samples are reportedly made via a cheek swab and then entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national DNA database run by the FBI.

These samples will be collected from “criminal aliens as well as aliens and U.S. Persons referred to prosecution” except anyone under 14, older than 79, or those who have severe mental or physical disabilities, according to literature published by the Department of Homeland Security. The Associated Press reports samples will remain in the system “indefinitely.”

Submitting to a DNA sample is a required part of a “pretrial release,” according to the DHS memo. If a person refuses to cooperate with the DNA collection, they will be charged with a class A misdemeanor. 

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Clara Long said while genetic data has borne out positive developments for crime victims, this program doesn’t seem to have the same goals. 

“There has to be some really careful thinking about how the government interacts with genetic data, and this is not it,” Long told Supermajority News. “It seems to be more about reinforcing this canard that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, which is not shown by the data.” 

The DNA collection program means the potential surveillance pool will grow since it offers information about an individual’s relatives as well. “Building a massive database of immigrants means a huge increase in the government’s ability to surveil people across the country,” Long added. “It’s not just you, it’s your family. It’s not just your family in the U.S., it’s your family anywhere. That’s what’s really disturbing about this program.”

The Trump administration first announced it would collect DNA samples of detained persons back in October. The administration says the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005, which requires obtaining a genetic sample from people arrested on suspicion of federal crimes, allows for this policy. Immigrants were not previously included in the scope of the Act, but this new program changes that.

Over the summer, CNN reported that immigration officers used rapid DNA testing at two border crossing locations to see if migrants traveling together were genetically related. Results were ready in an average of 90 minutes, and the samples were not stored, which is the most substantial difference between previous programs and this latest program.

The next phases of the CBP pilot program will expand the number of people trained to collect DNA samples at other border crossings. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is also developing a DNA collection plan, but additional locations where the collection will take place were not discussed in the DHS memo.

Read the full DHS memo on the program here.