The Department of Homeland Security announced today it plans to begin DNA testing immigrants and entering their information into a criminal database. The proposed regulation could harm hundreds of thousands of people held at immigration detention centers around the country, as reported by The New York Times.
The administration is framing the plan as an expansion of a pilot program they ran this summer along the US-Mexico border. There, immigration officials used Rapid DNA technology, which processes DNA samples in about 90 minutes, on people suspected of posing as families in order to avoid long detention stays (children can’t be held for more than 20 days). This is particularly troubling as not all families are genetically related — adoption, for instance, exists.
The database where that DNA will be stored primarily contains information about people who’ve committed serious offenses. The New York Times noted that on the FBI’s website, it’s described as a “tool for linking violent crimes.” It’s one more step in the Trump Administration’s efforts to crack down on immigration and criminalize those who enter the country illegally — even if they’re seeking asylum.
It’s also possible that American citizens will be forced to take DNA tests. This summer, border agents wrongfully arrested an 18-year-old US citizen and held him in detention for over a month.
“Forced DNA collection raises serious privacy and civil liberties concerns and lacks justification, especially when DHS is already using less intrusive identification methods like fingerprinting,” said Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, in a statement emailed to The Verge. “This kind of mass collection also alters the purpose of DNA collection from one of criminal investigation to population surveillance, which is contrary to our basic notions of freedom and autonomy.”
In 2018, when Trump rolled out his “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in 2,000 kids being separated from their parents at the border, DNA testing companies offered to help. Both 23andMe and MyHeritage said they would donate DNA testing kits to help parents find their missing kids. These tests would have been voluntary, but they still presented privacy risks.
DNA is genetic information, and can speak to how likely it is a person may get certain diseases, as well as who their family members are. This is valuable information for insurance companies who need to calculate the cost of someone’s healthcare. It can also be used to discriminate against people applying for jobs, mortgages, or loans if they’re seem as too high-risk.
“What if the government used the genetic information it collects to determine access to employment, our ability to have kids or get married, and other benefits, particularly as technology develops and our genetic information purportedly reveals even more about us?” Eidelman said. “We should hope that these are unlikely hypotheticals, but they’re not far-fetched considering the government’s long history of engaging in wrongful behavior towards people based on their genetic composition.”
The new tests are seen as problematic for this very reason: they contain a much broader genetic profile than what’s been previously collected. And unlike the pilot this summer, the information will go straight to the FBI.
The Department of Homeland Security told The New York Times that the new regulations are authorized under the DNA Fingerprint Act; until now, immigrants have been exempted from this unless they’ve committed a crime.