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DHS to Start Collecting DNA from Detained Immigrants

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DHS to Start Collecting DNA from Detained Immigrants

2019-10-03 22:07:121 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Ursula detention center in McAllen, Texas (Image source: Public domain)

In the latest move of the Trump administration  to affect immigration, the Department of Homeland Security plans to start collecting DNA from immigrants in detention as a way to enforce immigration laws.

DHS senior officials said on Wednesday that the Justice Department was developing a federal regulation to allow immigration officers to collect DNA in any detention facility that is currently holding more than 40,000 people.

This would give the FBI thousands of new records for immigrants. Up to this point the DNA database has been limited to genetic markers that are collected when an immigrant is arrested, charged, or convicted of a serious crime.

This has been something that has been a long-awaited effort. A law was passed in 2005 authorizing the collection of DNA data, but an exemption was added to protect immigrants. A DHS official said that exemption was outdated and needed to be eliminated.

Immigrant and privacy advocates believe collected DNA raises privacy concerns for a group of people who are already vulnerable. Additionally, sometimes citizens are accidentally booked into immigration custody, and they could be forced to provide DNA samples.

The new rules would allow authorities to collect DNA from children as well as those who are seeking asylum at legal ports of entry.

"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," said a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, Vera Eidelman.

Because genetic material carries family connections, Eidelman notes there will be implications not only for those who are in custody but for their family members who may be citizens or legal residents.

DHS officials claim the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005 permits the DNA testing, but until now those who were detained were exempt because of an agreement between former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, both of the Obama administration.

An August letter from the Office of Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner to the White House mentioned a whistleblower complaint that alleged immigration agencies weren't carrying out their obligations under the law to collect DNA, suggesting some authorities were already collecting DNA in limited situations.

"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 CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)," read the letter.

"This is an unacceptable dereliction of the agency's law enforcement mandate."

A pilot program was conducted this summer along the southwestern border of the U.S., with ICE agents using rapid DNA sampling technology to identify "fraudulent family units." This partly inspired the new rule.

The new program would differ from the pilot, as it would provide a comprehensive DNA profile of those who are tested, instead of the more narrow  test that was only being used to identify parental ties. Also, the results would be shared with other law enforcement agencies.

The DNA samples will be entered into the FBI's national DNA database, Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. The database is used by authorities to help identify criminal suspects and is advertised on the FBI website as a "tool for linking violent crimes."

This puts federal authorities into the debate about using DNA in criminal investigations. While it's been helpful for brining thousands of prosecutions, this also carries controversy because of the possibility of abuse.

Donald Trump has been trying to connect immigrants to crime since he first launched his 2016 campaign. It's the basis for his border wall, the thought that the migrants we allow in are hardened criminals.

"We don't have a statistical database of how many businesses immigrants create, or the ways they enrich our communities," pointed out Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law, who wrote a book regarding the misuse of forensic evidence.

"But if the government has a way to say, 'This is the number of immigrants we've linked to crimes,' and this is something we already see anecdotally, we might lose sight of all the positive benefits."

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Ursula detention center in McAllen, Texas (Image source: Public domain)

In the latest move of the Trump administration  to affect immigration, the Department of Homeland Security plans to start collecting DNA from immigrants in detention as a way to enforce immigration laws.

DHS senior officials said on Wednesday that the Justice Department was developing a federal regulation to allow immigration officers to collect DNA in any detention facility that is currently holding more than 40,000 people.

This would give the FBI thousands of new records for immigrants. Up to this point the DNA database has been limited to genetic markers that are collected when an immigrant is arrested, charged, or convicted of a serious crime.

This has been something that has been a long-awaited effort. A law was passed in 2005 authorizing the collection of DNA data, but an exemption was added to protect immigrants. A DHS official said that exemption was outdated and needed to be eliminated.

Immigrant and privacy advocates believe collected DNA raises privacy concerns for a group of people who are already vulnerable. Additionally, sometimes citizens are accidentally booked into immigration custody, and they could be forced to provide DNA samples.

The new rules would allow authorities to collect DNA from children as well as those who are seeking asylum at legal ports of entry.

"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," said a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, Vera Eidelman.

Because genetic material carries family connections, Eidelman notes there will be implications not only for those who are in custody but for their family members who may be citizens or legal residents.

DHS officials claim the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005 permits the DNA testing, but until now those who were detained were exempt because of an agreement between former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, both of the Obama administration.

An August letter from the Office of Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner to the White House mentioned a whistleblower complaint that alleged immigration agencies weren't carrying out their obligations under the law to collect DNA, suggesting some authorities were already collecting DNA in limited situations.

"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 CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)," read the letter.

"This is an unacceptable dereliction of the agency's law enforcement mandate."

A pilot program was conducted this summer along the southwestern border of the U.S., with ICE agents using rapid DNA sampling technology to identify "fraudulent family units." This partly inspired the new rule.

The new program would differ from the pilot, as it would provide a comprehensive DNA profile of those who are tested, instead of the more narrow  test that was only being used to identify parental ties. Also, the results would be shared with other law enforcement agencies.

The DNA samples will be entered into the FBI's national DNA database, Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. The database is used by authorities to help identify criminal suspects and is advertised on the FBI website as a "tool for linking violent crimes."

This puts federal authorities into the debate about using DNA in criminal investigations. While it's been helpful for brining thousands of prosecutions, this also carries controversy because of the possibility of abuse.

Donald Trump has been trying to connect immigrants to crime since he first launched his 2016 campaign. It's the basis for his border wall, the thought that the migrants we allow in are hardened criminals.

"We don't have a statistical database of how many businesses immigrants create, or the ways they enrich our communities," pointed out Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law, who wrote a book regarding the misuse of forensic evidence.

"But if the government has a way to say, 'This is the number of immigrants we've linked to crimes,' and this is something we already see anecdotally, we might lose sight of all the positive benefits."

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