Whose DNA should be collected?
The Department of Justice’s proposal to collect DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of immigrants in detention centers without their consent has made me rethink the saliva sample I happily sent Ancestry a couple of months ago. Though Ancestry confirmed that my DNA reflects my family’s European heritage, I don’t know what other information Ancestry gleaned, or could glean, from my sample. Nor do I know how this organization that so charmingly celebrates our human diversity plans to protect its information from a government that sees DNA as a tool for its national forensic database linking crimes and potential criminals — a database that, in some dark future, offers the possibility of highlighting in advance those genetically disposed to violence, “sexual deviance,” and other types of criminal behavior.
I recall my unease when the DNA Identification Act of 1994 authorized the establishment of a national index of DNA identification records. These records were to include swabs from persons convicted of crimes, as well as samples recovered from crime scenes and from unidentified human remains. Although the national index was focused on sexual offenders, it was soon extended to all federal crimes. Unimaginable to me then, in some states individuals are now swabbed after being picked up for something as innocuous as loitering. DNA samples have also been taken not only from those convicted, but from individuals awaiting prosecution, who may never be convicted, and DNA profiles may remain in the national database even after an acquittal — in other words, still guilty so far as the database is concerned.
The Trump administration’s plans for taking DNA samples from immigrants in detention centers have several possible purposes. Most immediately, they will help determine whether the individual has a criminal record, and so discourage the Department of Immigration from allowing him or her to become a legal immigrant in the United States. Ironically, since the administration has criminalized entry into the United States, an individual going through legal channels may already have a “criminal record” if he or she previously entered the U.S. without going through border patrol. More insidiously, by adding all immigrants to the national index of those linked to crimes, the forced samples treat every immigrant as a presumed threat to our security, rather than as an individual escaping poverty and violence or simply seeking a better life.
The collection of DNA samples has been challenged as an illegal search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the constitutional right to privacy to everyone within the United States, regardless of their immigration status. The Fourth Amendment has already been eroded within the 100-mile border zone, where suspicion-less searches are currently allowed, even of American citizens. But the DNA samples — a prime example of suspicion-less searches — constitute one more threat to the privacy rights and civil liberties of immigrants.
The American Friends Service and the American Civil Liberties Union are among the organizations objecting to Trump’s proposal for taking DNA samples in detention facilities. As both organizations note, the government has often tried to normalize new surveillance technologies by testing them on vulnerable communities and imposing initial restrictions on how any information collected will be used. The government inevitably expands those technologies beyond their original purposes, thus altering the purpose of DNA collection to population surveillance.
What I find puzzling is how many of the same people who fear the “deep state” are those who support President Trump and his administration’s expansion of federal powers. Perhaps they see proposals like the DNA samples as protecting them from “other people,” outsiders who are not like them. But we ignore at our peril how the same tactics, having been tried out of the public eye on the most vulnerable, can easily be extended to all of us.
Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.