Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are expected to begin collecting the DNA samples of people arrested across the country later this year, according to two former Department of Homeland Security officials with knowledge of the program.
The expansion, spurred by federal regulations that went into effect earlier this year, will take place in stages as ICE officials in different regions across the US begin to collect DNA from October into 2021, according to the two sources.
ICE officials have been conducting a pilot project in the Dallas area since May in which those booked into custody are swabbed for DNA. The agency hopes to emulate that model across the country and plans to begin in October in various parts of the country before expanding to other areas through March.
The sources said ICE officials have also explored advocating for prosecutions of immigrants who refuse to have their DNA collected.
“In compliance with Department of Justice (DOJ) regulation requiring the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collect DNA samples of everyone arrested and fingerprinted, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) continues to work on expanding DNA sampling to other field offices during the remainder of the calendar year,” an ICE spokesperson said.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, ICE officers have widened the group of people they are targeting for arrest to include those who do not have serious criminal records. The decision to obtain DNA samples from immigrants will likely be met with widespread alarm by immigrant and privacy advocates who have said it would lead to the unnecessary collection of sensitive information.
“It's part and parcel of trying to expand ICE into a general national police force,” said one former DHS official. Another said the effort appeared to be “one more way of collecting more information and increasing the data trail and eliminating privacy rights for detainees.”
BuzzFeed News first reported in 2019 that the Department of Justice was planning to issue a regulation to expand DNA collection of detained immigrants. The Trump administration has cited the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005, which allows federal agencies to collect DNA from people in its custody, including those who are not US citizens.
But previous DOJ regulations exempted agencies under the DHS — including Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE — in certain circumstances.
In the final regulation posted in May, that exception was cut altogether, opening DNA collection up to include people who are awaiting deportation and those who are not charged with a crime, such as undocumented immigrants. The only authority that could exempt detainees from DNA collection is the attorney general, per the policy.
DHS officials have said that DNA collection would help better identify immigrants in custody and assist other agencies who come in contact with them.
In May, when the agency began the pilot project in Dallas to collect DNA, ICE officials said deportation officers would use a “DNA-sample collection kit, provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), to swab the inside of the alien’s cheek and send the kit to the FBI Laboratory Division for processing and uploading into the National DNA Index System (NDIS).”
The samples were taken during the time of arrest, along with other biographical information.
A DHS report issued in July on the privacy impact of the expansion of DNA collection noted that ICE would not take samples from those under 14 years old or from those who had been transferred from CBP or DOJ custody. The report indicated that the DNA kits would be sent to the FBI laboratory and included in CODIS, a national DNA database.
Civil liberties groups have long challenged the expansion of DNA collection from citizens and noncitizens alike.
“DNA collection programs allow the government to obtain sensitive and private information on a person without any precursor level of suspicion and without showing that the data collected is tied to a specific crime,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement last year when the Trump administration first announced its intent to expand DNA collection.