‘Disturbing:’ DNA collection at border expected to be the new normal

A pilot project at the U.S. border that involves the collection of DNA from detainees will likely be a reality in the future, according to one expert.

Earlier this week, the U.S. government announced that for 90 days, it would collect DNA samples from people in immigration custody at two border crossings – Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge and Eagle Pass Port of Entry in Laredo, Texas. Toronto-based immigration lawyer Joel Sandaluk explains that the Detroit point of entry was chosen because it has historically low rates of detention.

“What they’re trying to do is ascertain the operational impact of DNA collection at border crossings,” he tells Yahoo Canada. “They should be able to gauge what kind of impact that DNA collection will have on border crossings with higher rates of detention.”

Sandaluk says the pilot project isn’t surprising as it’s something the U.S. government has been talking about and been committed to for some time. The DNA will be collected and then transferred to the FBI database, where it will retained indefinitely and used for other law enforcement purposes.

A detainee can be categorized as someone who is trying to enter the country without legal means, but it can also include anyone who’s taken into custody at the border.

“A number of American politicians have mentioned that there will likely be a disproportionate effect on who will be affected by this new policy,” Sandaluk says.

In recent weeks, there have been reports of Americans of Iranian descent being stopped at the border and questioned about their political opinions and feelings on the situation in Iran. As a result, a number of concerns are being raised: What is the purpose of this DNA collection and can it be used for non-immigration motives? And will certain people be affected by this?

“That disproportionate effect is causing a lot of concern,” says Sandaluk.

He goes on to point out that Americans and Canadians entering each other’s countries are applying for a benefit, which means it’s not their legal or constitutional right to enter the other country. And the border has a long history of collecting DNA.

“In many cases fingerprints are collected,” he says. “(The pilot project) isn’t the only biometric information that’s taken from people. What it is is a different kind of biometric information.”

There are legitimate reasons for DNA to be sampled at the border. Canada sometimes collects DNA from people on request, when the parentage of a child is questioned. In those circumstances a DNA test will be conducted to confirm if the child is related to the adults he or she is travelling with.

However, the U.S. has acknowledged that the DNA samples collected in the pilot project may not serve an immediate purpose.

“The DNA tests may be taken but not processed until well after the person is released from custody or removed from the United States,” says Sandaluk.

The only Canadians who will be affected by the DNA pilot project are those who are taken into custody at the border.  While the DNA test won’t necessarily have an immediate effect on them, the samples will be retained in an American criminal justice database, potentially indefinitely.

Sandaluk says the main and most immediate effect this will have is a loss of privacy for travellers. Since border guards have a broad range of discretion, American citizens of specific backgrounds may be illegally detained, which could result in the extraction of DNA and its storage in a database. Sandaluk describes this as “disturbing.” However, travellers from all over should learn to get used to it

“This could be the future,” he says. “The main reason this hasn’t happened yet is because of administrative concerns and operational issues…but I expect that this is the direction the American government, the Canadian government and other governments will go. It doesn’t really represent a change in policy as it does an intensification of policy.”

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