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Trump admin to broadly expand DNA collection of migrants in custody

The DNA would then be transferred to the FBI’s criminal justice DNA database, an official said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents check documents of a small group of migrants, who crossed the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, in El Paso, Texas, on May 16, 2019.Paul Ratje / AFP - Getty Images file

The Trump administration is preparing to broadly expand DNA collection from migrants in U.S. detention, senior Department of Homeland Security officials said Wednesday.

The Department of Justice was preparing a regulation for the expanded DNA collection that was still being worked out between the two agencies, two senior DHS officials who spoke on condition they not be identified said in a news teleconference.

An official said during the call that the rule would be a “DHS-wide effort,” meaning it would cover migrants in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The DNA would then be transferred to the FBI’s criminal justice DNA database, the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, an official said.

Among the details still being determined were who would be exempt from the regulation, the officials said, but the policy would be much broader in scope than a pilot program that currently uses rapid DNA technology to collect the biometric data from migrant families when child trafficking or fraud is suspected.

While that pilot program was only establishing maternal and paternal connections, “this is a completely different path forward,” one official said.

“This is a broader population that we’re applying to,” the official said. “This is more of the fuller-scope DNA profile that we’re taking in order to be able to help identify a person."

The move is likely to be met with criticism by civil rights and immigrants advocates, who have cited privacy concerns and decried the use of DNA testing for migrants not suspected to be connected with serious crimes.

When asked about including the migrants DNA in a database holding information of suspected or convicted criminals, an official said it was within the Department of Justice’s authority and the two agencies would work to ensure any entries into the database complied with the law and the attorney general’s authorities.

The officials said a working group was still addressing issues of the scope and implementation of the rule, privacy concerns and the timing of the rollout of a pilot phase.

The officials said a statute known as the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005 authorizes collection of DNA from people in custody. Thus far, the agency has been working under certain exemptions to that statute. In 2010, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano requested an exemption to that collection for migrants who were not facing criminal charges and others awaiting deportation proceedings.

The official said such exemptions are no longer necessary.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration began fingerprinting some migrant children under the age of 14 and testing some migrant families suspected of faking familial relationships.