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U.S. Government’s New Program to Collect DNA from Detained Migrants is Unethical and Unnecessary: PHR

Trump Administration’s Move Violates Human Rights and Privacy of Migrants, Including Children as Young as 14

The U.S. government’s new program to collect DNA from detained migrants in U.S. custody is a violation of human and civil rights, Physicians for Human Rights said today. The program constitutes an unethical use of biotechnology and a further attack on migrants exercising their legal right to seek asylum.

Despite overwhelming public concern, including a public comment to the Department of Justice submitted by Physicians for Human Rights, the Trump administration has advanced this reprehensible and hastily-designed plan, which will require Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol agents to collect DNA samples via cheek swabs. This sensitive biometric information would be held indefinitely in a criminal database run by the FBI.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stated that a 90-day pilot launched on January 6 in Detroit, Michigan and at the port of entry at Eagle Pass, Texas will apply to individuals who are convicted or accused of crimes. Children as young as 14 will have their DNA collected in the Detroit pilot, according to DHS. ICE will also conduct a pilot program at one unspecified detention facility that will collect DNA from “from non-U.S. Persons it detains for administrative purposes” – a group which includes both lawful asylum seekers and immigrants charged with only civil (not criminal) violations. Over the next three years, DHS plans to expand the DNA collection program nationwide to include this group.

The program allows the U.S. government, for the first time, to collect DNA for storage in a criminal database from individuals who are not accused of any crime. Those who refuse to provide a DNA sample may even be subject to criminal charges, according to DHS. This prospect at once criminalizes immigration status itself and paves the way for potential genetic surveillance of U.S. citizens and permanent residents in the future.

“Collecting genetic material from immigrants in federal custody is a reckless misuse of biotechnology and resources that breaches fundamental civil and human rights,” said Ranit Mishori, MD, PHR senior medical advisor. “These DNA profiles will be obtained through coercion, and the practice further discriminates against immigrants.”

“The many limitations and frequent imprecision of DNA forensics are well-documented,” said Dr. Mishori.

 “The Trump administration’s policy of blanket DNA collection from migrants for law enforcement purposes will unfairly stigmatize a group shown to commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans,” said Joanna Naples-Mitchell, PHR U.S. researcher. “This pilot is part of a broader pattern of arbitrary and dangerous immigration enforcement practices, which harm migrant health and safety.”

“At a time when U.S. immigration agencies have struggled to provide basic services like water, food, and soap for those in custody, the allocation of time and resources for invasive DNA collection practices is an egregious mistake,” Naples-Mitchell added.

The mandatory DHS Privacy Impact Assessment released Monday raises a number of new ethical and practical concerns. For example, the DHS document states that individuals who refuse to provide a DNA sample (identified as “non-compliant”) may be subject to criminal prosecution. The document itself acknowledges that this means that “DNA collection requires no consent and is not voluntary.” It also raises the possibility that the pilot program will involve the use of physical force against detainees, stating that “ICE will develop policies relating to use of reasonable force and other issues identified during the pilot.”

Further, the DHS program suggests that training for officers under the pilot program will be grossly insufficient. Last year, the chief of Border Patrol’s law enforcement directorate stated, “Border Patrol Agents are not currently trained on DNA collection measures, health and safety precautions, or the appropriate handling of DNA samples for processing.” Yet, according to DHS, the primary tool it now plans to use to train Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE officers to collect sensitive DNA samples under the pilot is a training DVD.

DHS has stated that certain groups will be exempt from the program, including individuals with “a severe physical or cognitive handicap.” Yet it fails to specify which DHS employees will be tasked with determining who is exempt and what competence they will have to do so.

DHS acknowledges that detained immigrants, including children, may not be aware they must provide a DNA sample and plans to mitigate this risk by simply posting a privacy notice at certain facilities and providing “individual verbal notice.” DHS offers no special provision to ensure that children or non-English-speaking migrants understand what is being demanded of them. Furthermore, although DHS claims it will only collect DNA from children 14 and older, it fails to explain how officers will assess age.

Finally, the program – by DHS’s own admission – is destined to be ineffective. DHS itself notes that the time the FBI Laboratory needs to process a DNA sample may only result in a match to a profile in the FBI’s criminal database after the individual has already been released from custody: “It is unlikely that CBP or ICE would be able to use a DNA profile match for public safety or investigative purposes,” the DHS document states.

“Physicians for Human Rights calls on DHS to immediately end this unnecessary and irresponsible program,” Naples-Mitchell said.

See PHR’s November 12 Public Comment: “Profiling Immigration Detainees via DNA Sampling: A Violation of Rights and An Unethical Use of Biotechnology”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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