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U.S. to collect DNA samples of arrested immigrants

The Justice Department defends the new policy as an important crime-fighting too. Activists see it as a violation of privacy.

January 09, 2009|Anna Gorman

Beginning today, the U.S. government will collect DNA samples from people arrested and detained for suspected immigration violations, despite concerns that the move violates their privacy rights.

The new Justice Department policy also will expand DNA collection to people arrested on suspicion of committing federal crimes. Previously, the government only obtained DNA from people convicted of certain crimes.

The samples will be added to the national database and used to make identifications through comparisons with crime scene evidence, according to the Justice Department.

"The collection of DNA samples is an important crime-fighting and crime-solving tool," said Evan Peterson, a spokesman for the department.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday that it was considering filing a lawsuit and that it would closely monitor the collection of DNA samples.

"We will be looking to see whether mistakes are made," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program.

Steinhardt said he had "grave concerns" about the rapid expansion of the DNA database to include immigrant detainees and people accused of committing crimes.

"People who are merely accused of a crime or a civil violation of law but haven't been convicted of anything are being subjected to the most invasive sort of testing," he said.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has said the change is designed to prevent violent crimes by deportees who return illegally. Kyl wrote a 2005 law that authorized the department to include pre-conviction DNA samples in its national database.

Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian said Thursday that DNA was becoming a standard law enforcement tool that was better than fingerprints for identification.

"It's especially important with regard to immigration because people are changing their names and presenting easily forged foreign documents," he said. "It's important to know who is who and when someone is lying."

More than 1.3 million samples from immigrants, detainees and federal arrestees are expected to be added to the database under the new policy, the FBI said. The bureau received more money to upgrade its DNA programs and software to accommodate the increased workload.

But Steinhardt said he thought the program would be impractical, saying there was already a backlog.

"The more you expand these databases, the greater the returns diminish," he said.

David Leopold, the national vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said the DNA collection was part of a federal trend to treat immigrants as criminals, even though they were civil detainees. Many detained immigrants, for example, are housed in county jails alongside suspected and convicted criminals.

Leopold said he also worried that some of those detained and forced to give DNA would turn out to be U.S. citizens.

"This rule is just a terrifying expansion of power," he said.

--

anna.gorman@latimes.com.

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