The Trump administration is moving forward with plans to implement collection of DNA from migrants who’ve been arrested, according the Department of Homeland Security.
The move, being done in coordination with the Department of Justice, comes on the heels of months of historic high apprehension numbers on the southern border and is likely to receive pushback from immigrant advocacy groups.
DHS is currently working under exceptions put in place nearly a decade ago. In 2010, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano requested an exemption for DNA collection from the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005, including for migrants in custody who weren’t facing criminal charges or those pending deportation proceedings, citing a lack of agency resources at the time to gather DNA.
A senior DHS official did not say when the program would formally be released.
Administration officials emphasized that details are still being ironed out, including privacy concerns, costs and training.
In August, the US Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that handles whistleblower concerns, urged Customs and Border Protection to comply with a law mandating collection of DNA samples from criminals in their custody.
The alert came after whistleblowers notified OSC that CBP “has evaded this law over the last decade citing a temporary Obama-era exception.” OSC also urged the Department of Justice to review the status and implementation of the 2010 waiver.
Earlier this year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deployed DNA testing at seven locations along the US-Mexico border to determine familial relationships amid concerns that some individuals were posing as families to eventually be released into the US. The agency has since expanded DNA testing to three additional locations on the southern border.
“This was really an investigative tool in attacking the fraudulent family phenomenon,” said an ICE official about the operation. “We’re interested in using this as a tactical law enforcement tool, one of many, to be deployed when looking at a potential fraudulent family scenario.”
ICE and Customs and Border Protection — two agencies within DHS that handle the processing of migrants — are involved: CBP makes a referral for investigation and ICE Homeland Security Investigations takes it from there.
In the first iteration of the operation — Operation Double Helix 1.0 — 16 out of 84 families were identified as fraudulent based on negative DNA results, according to DHS. In the second — Operation Double Helix 2.0 — 79 of 522 families were determined to be fraudulent based on negative DNA results, to date.
The prospect of an interview or, more recently, a DNA test has led some migrants posing as families to concede that they are not related, Alysa Erichs, acting executive associate director of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, has said previously.
The expanded DNA collection is “fundamentally different” than ICE’s DNA program, said another DHS senior official. It would gather more information than the DNA testing currently being executed along areas on the southern border and be stored in a federal DNA database.
In cases where migrants have conceded that they have no familial connection, ICE has referred the adults for criminal prosecution and turned over the minors to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Earlier this year, the US Border Patrol also began fingerprinting some migrant children 14 and younger because of increased concern about fraud and the trafficking of children.
The Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly warned that children are being exploited by traffickers to skirt the nation’s immigration laws. Currently, the government can’t hold migrant children in detention for more than 20 days, often leading to the release of families until their immigration court hearing, a practice President Donald Trump has derided as “catch and release.”
The administration has argued that the limit on how long migrant children can be held in detention has prompted some people to pose as families. An attempt to scrap the 20-day limit was blocked by a federal judge in California last month.
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