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Justice Department Proposal Would Allow Federal Agents To Collect Immigrants' DNA


The Justice Department is proposing a new federal rule that would allow federal agents to collect DNA from nearly every immigrant detained in this country, including migrants who have fled their home countries to seek asylum. DOJ says this would help them catch criminals. Civil liberties advocates object. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Trump administration is moving to dramatically expand the number of DNA samples it collects from immigrants in detention and share that information with a massive criminal database maintained by the FBI. That's something immigration hardliners have long supported. Here's Fox News host Laura Ingraham earlier this year.


LAURA INGRAHAM: Collecting DNA of detained migrants to make sure that they're not already wanted for something in the United States - it's just so common sense. Everyone's watching this tonight going, this is so obvious. I can't believe...

ROSE: It's been more than a decade since Congress required authorities to collect DNA samples from anyone who has been arrested or charged with federal crimes and also from anyone in immigration detention. Under the Obama administration, Homeland Security officials said it wasn't feasible to do that, so the Justice Department gave them a pass. But officials inside U.S. Customs and Border Protection thought that was wrong, and they stepped forward as whistleblowers to say their agency is violating the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005. Here's one of those whistleblowers, Mark Jones, speaking to Fox this summer.


MARK JONES: We have a great tool that was mandated by and approved by Congress as a law, and we're not using it.

ROSE: The Justice Department says expanded DNA collection will, quote, "help to save lives and bring criminals to justice," unquote, but civil liberties advocates are skeptical. They question whether it's appropriate to take DNA by force from immigrants who have not been charged with a crime.

Naureen Shah is a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.

NAUREEN SHAH: The logic is very perverse and ugly. It's that if you are in immigration detention, this administration would treat you as though you committed a crime. And so even without charging you with a criminal offense, it's going to go ahead and start the investigation.

ROSE: Shah says the rule would apply to nearly all undocumented immigrants who are taken into custody. The Justice Department rule does allow some exceptions for green card holders and for people who are detained briefly - for example, at airports. But notably, Shah says, there is no exception for asylum-seekers, whether they cross the border illegally or present themselves legally at ports of entry to ask for protection.

SHAH: I think that the administration would like this to sound like it is about law enforcement and criminal investigation just the way they make every one of their immigration policies seem to be about preventing crime and ensuring safety for the public when, in fact, they're about demonizing people who are coming to this country to get safety.

ROSE: The proposed rule will be published in the federal register tomorrow. The public will have 20 days to weigh in.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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