Trump Administration to Collect DNA Samples from Asylum-Seekers

By Shani Saxon Oct 21, 2019

The United States government is set to collect DNA samples from asylum-seekers detained at the southern border, The Associated Press reported Monday (October 21). A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) told The AP that officials will add information from the samples to a large FBI database used to track and investigate criminal activity. The DOJ’s amended regulation will reportedly “mandate DNA collection for almost all migrants who cross between official entry points and are held even temporarily.”

According to the official, who spoke to The AP “on the condition of anonymity before the regulations were published,” these new rules would not apply to anyone entering the U.S. “legally” and wouldn’t affect legal permanent residents. Children under the age of 14 are also exempt. The AP says it’s still unclear whether asylum-seekers who cross into the U.S. through legal ports of entry will be forced to give DNA samples. From the outlet:


The new policy would allow the government to amass a trove of biometric data on hundreds of thousands of migrants, raising major privacy concerns and questions about whether such data should be compelled even when a person is not suspected of a crime other than crossing the border illegally. Civil rights groups already have expressed concerns that data could be misused, and the new policy is likely to lead to legal action.

The new regulations are scheduled to go into effect on Tuesday (October 22), with officials hoping to “have a pilot program in place shortly after the 20-day comment period ends and expand from there,” according to the DOJ official. 

Colorlines previously reported on the DOJ’s plan to expand DNA collection at the border. At the time, it wasn’t clear when the program would begin, but advocates expressed outrage over the policy:


Vera Eidelman, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told  The New York Times this shift has to be taken seriously. “That kind of mass collection alters the purpose of DNA collection from one of criminal investigation basically to population surveillance,” she said. “[That] is basically contrary to our basic notions of a free, trusting, autonomous society.” Eidelman added that because genetic material also carries family connections, the collected DNA data could also impact family members who may or may not be legal residents of the U.S.

Immigration officials are currently limited in the amount of DNA they are allowed to collect. According to The AP, DNA can be collected “when a migrant is prosecuted in federal court for a criminal offense. That includes illegal crossing, a charge that has affected mostly single adults. Those accompanied by children generally aren’t prosecuted because children can’t be detained.”

The FBI database, also called the Combined DNA Index System, “has nearly 14 million convicted offender profiles, plus 3.6 million arrestee profiles and 966,782 forensic profiles as of August 2019.” The AP reports:


Federal and state investigators use the system to match DNA in crimes they are trying to solve. As of August 2019, the database produced about 480,000 hits, or matches with law enforcement seeking crime scene data, and assisted in more than 469,000 investigations.

According to The AP, the FBI will train border officials on how to obtain DNA samples and will supply the necessary cheek swab kits.