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Raiding the Genome: How the United States Government Is Abusing Its Immigration Powers to Amass DNA for Future Policing

May 23, 2024 (2 min read)

Georgetown Law, May 21, 2024

"The U.S. government has a message to immigrant communities: we’re watching you, at the genetic level.

A new report by the Center on Privacy & Technology, Raiding the Genome: How the United States Government Is Abusing Its Immigration Powers to Amass DNA for Future Policing, is the first in-depth analysis of the drastic expansion, after a DOJ rule change in 2020, of a massive Department of Homeland Security program to take DNA from thousands of people every day. DHS’s program operates with essentially no oversight, and the DNA they take is used for criminal policing and prosecution.  

Download full report (PDF): Raiding the Genome: How the United States Government Is Abusing Its Immigration Powers to Amass DNA for Future Policing here.

Download just the executive summary (PDF) here.

Under a Trump-era Department of Justice rule (left in place by the Biden administration), DHS can compel DNA samples from anyone the agency “detains.” While limiting DHS DNA collection to only those the agency detains might seem like a serious limitation, our report finds that it is nothing of the sort. The term “detained” in the immigration context is both broad and vague, so as a practical matter almost nobody is categorically excluded from DNA collection by the requirement that they first be “detained.” Once DHS collects DNA, it sends the samples to the FBI, where the FBI adds profiles created from the samples to the nation’s criminal policing DNA database, CODIS, and stores the samples themselves indefinitely. Once in CODIS, the profiles become accessible to police at the local, state, federal, and international levels for use in criminal investigations. 

Relying on more than a year and a half of research, the report makes the following key findings: 

  • Since 2020, DHS has added more than 1.5 million DNA profiles to the national law enforcement database (CODIS) — a 5,000% increase in just 3 years. 
  • DHS misleads and intimidates people to collect their DNA. 
  • DHS is collecting DNA primarily from people of color. 
  • This massive expansion of federal DNA-collecting power is the result of several low-profile administrative sleights of hand — not open democratic debate.
  • The government is exploiting its immigration powers to collect genetic material at a pace that would not be possible using criminal policing powers.
  • DHS’s DNA collection program rampantly violates the Fourth Amendment rights of those who are subject to it. 
  • The government keeps DNA samples indefinitely. This is extremely risky, given rapid advances in DNA technology, the lack of strong legal limits on what the government can do with those samples, and increasing political instability in the U.S.

The report concludes by calling on the Biden administration and Congress to put an immediate stop to this program. We hope that the information uncovered in this report will aid organizers and advocates working to resist government biometric collection and surveillance practices. Together, we must stop DHS from raiding the genome."