On May 24, 2023, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published an extensive analysis of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) DNA collection program. The CBP, a subsidiary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), initiated this program in 2020, following the Department of Justice’s decision to lift a decade-long exemption. This GAO report stresses the need for precise data collection to improve the program’s oversight and effectiveness.
DNA Collection Practices at the Border
Asylum-seekers at the U.S. border are often required to provide DNA samples, a practice that has grown increasingly common since 2019. This has seen a rise in the number of predominantly Central American immigrants being requested to provide DNA samples as part of their border crossing process.
The DNA collection typically involves a cheek swab and is mandatory for all individuals aged 14-79. The collected samples are forwarded to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation for input into the federal Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS. Notably, DNA samples from minors under the age of 14 are exempted.
GAO Report Findings and the Expansion of the DNA Collection Program
The GAO report highlights a dramatic surge in the volume of collected DNA samples. Initially, in 2020, the DHS forwarded 5,641 DNA samples to the FBI. By the fiscal year 2022, this figure had ballooned to 634,422 samples, equating to approximately 37% of total individuals encountered by the agency. The report additionally highlighted concerns about the efficacy and oversight of the program.
Despite this rapid expansion, the report underscored several areas of concern. These include inadequate data management systems hindering effective oversight, the potential for unauthorized access to sensitive information, and the need for comprehensive risk assessments to guide future implementations.
Rapid DNA Testing for Parent-Child Relationships
Simultaneously with the CODIS program, a separate rapid DNA testing program was launched to confirm parent-child relationships. This program saw a substantial expansion in 2019 following a $5.2 million contract awarded to Bode Cellmark Forensics. The CBP asserts that these specific DNA tests are discarded after use.
The use of rapid DNA testing has raised further controversies, questioning both the accuracy of the technology and the legitimacy of the consent provided by those being tested.
Influence of Border Policies on Domestic Surveillance
The implications of surveillance technology at the border are not confined to the immediate vicinity. The broadened scope of DNA collection—from prior arrests or convictions to immigration custody, and now to asylum proceedings—has wider repercussions, affecting U.S. citizens and lawful residents alike. This expansion of surveillance practices calls for more scrutiny of the technologies employed for data collection and their subsequent applications.
Towards a Balanced Approach
While the DNA collection program was conceived with the aim of ensuring the security and integrity of the immigration process, its rapid expansion has spurred significant privacy and ethical concerns. Striking a careful balance between national security imperatives and the respect for individual privacy and human rights remains a key challenge. The GAO report serves as an essential first step in this conversation, proposing improved data collection practices and more stringent oversight of the program. It remains crucial to see how these recommendations will be implemented and what impact they will have on the future of the DNA collection program at the U.S. borders.
- GAO Report, May 24, 2023 (https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-23-106252.pdf)
- Iowa Capital Dispatch, “U.S. continues to take DNA samples from asylum seekers at the border,” June 10, 2023 (https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2023/06/10/u-s-continues-to-take-dna-samples-from-asylum-seekers-at-the-border)