U.S. collection of DNA at Canada, Mexico borders ‘hugely problematic’: expert

The U.S. announced a plan to collect DNA at certain border entries. Getty Images

The United States’ decision to pilot a project to collect DNA from people in immigration custody at Canadian and Mexican border crossings is raising privacy concerns.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the 90-day project Monday in a memo, saying it will begin in Texas and Michigan, but the plan is to expand it nationally.

U.S. Customs and Border protection will collect swabs from people apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol at the Canadian border in or near Detroit, as well as people detained at the official port of entry at Eagle Pass, Texas, across from Piedras Negras, Mexico.

In Detroit, people as young as 14 will be subject to DNA collection.

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The memo explained U.S. citizens and permanent residents holding a “green card” who are detained could be subject to DNA testing, as well as asylum seekers and people entering the country without authorization. Refusing to submit DNA could lead to a misdemeanour criminal charge, the document said.

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Petra Molnar, who is the acting director of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program, explained to Global News that the program is concerning on many levels

“I think it’s definitely an example of how hard-line and draconian the policies in the U.S. in particular are turning when it comes to immigration, custody and detention,” she said.

“The actual operational reality of it is hugely problematic, as well, because we don’t know what the parameters are and where it will begin and end.”

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She noted that the DNA testing could affect anyone from U.S. residents and citizens to asylum seekers to Canadians driving across the border for a weekend getaway.

“That’s one of the things that I think is unclear about this super problematic policy,” Molnar said. “It’s incredibly over-broad, and we don’t know who would actually be affected.”

Molnar noted that collection of personal information, detentions and questioning tend to target vulnerable minorities and racialized populations in particular.

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The government memo acknowledged that the DNA its agents collect may not be immediately useful.

Agents plan to take saliva swabs of detained people, then mail them to the FBI. By the time the results are processed, the memo said, the people in question may have already been released, deported or transferred to another federal agency.

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While the U.S. government says agents won’t take DNA from people entering the country legally or those being held for further questioning, the CBP has wrongfully accused Americans of entering the country illegally in the past.

The move also comes just weeks after the U.S. military warned its members against taking any popular direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests, citing privacy and surveillance concerns in a memo.

“Exposing sensitive genetic information to outside parties poses personal and operational risks to service members,” the Dec. 20 memo said.

Molnar said she expects the multiple concerns surrounding the project to prompt legal challenges.

The American Civil Liberties Union has already raised concerns about it.

Stephen Kang, an attorney for the ACLU, questioned whether the U.S. was creating “a DNA bank of immigrants that have come through custody for no clear reason.”

“It raises a lot of very serious, practical concerns, I think, and real questions about coercion,” Kang said.

While concerning, Molnar noted that this isn’t the first instance of biometrics being used for such purposes. Similar use of DNA and biometrics have raised concerns in the past.

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration announced last year it would seek to expand its use of biometrics to stop migrant adults from bringing children and falsely posing as parents.

In May 2019, the Canadian Border Services Agency said it would create a national guide for using DNA tests to identify some detainees — but it had been doing so since at least 2016.

There have also been reports of Chinese authorities collecting DNA, fingerprints and other health information of residents, particularly the persecuted Uighur Muslim population.

— With files from The Associated Press

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