Feds collected DNA from 1.5 million migrants in less than four years, report finds

Collage of DNA strand
In nearly four years, a national DNA database — which is shared with law enforcement agencies nationwide — added more than 1.5 million noncitizen profiles.
(Elana Marie / For De Los )

Routine collection of immigrants’ DNA by federal authorities has ballooned since 2020, with a 50-fold spike in the number of samples held in a national database of the sensitive genetic information, according to a report released Tuesday.

In nearly four years, the DNA database — which is shared with law enforcement agencies nationwide — added more than 1.5 million noncitizen profiles, according to the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology. That compares with about 30,000 total samples previously obtained since 2005, when Congress authorized DNA collection by federal immigration authorities, the study found.

The center said the sharp rise raises questions about whether immigrants’ privacy rights are being violated as well as the overall constitutionality of the program.


DNA samples are routinely taken by immigration agents “without any of the procedural rules that police are supposed to follow before they can take a person’s DNA,” the center said in the report.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said caring for the privacy of vulnerable populations is of utmost importance. The agency’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has completed an investigation into the collection of DNA, and results and recommendations are under review.

The agency was mostly exempt from regulations issued in 2008 that required federal agencies to collect DNA of detained individuals.

The increase is attributed to a 2020 Department of Justice rule change instituted by the Trump administration that requires the Department of Homeland Security to collect DNA from nearly all people detained by agents at the border and inside the country.

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After agents collect DNA, the samples are sent to the FBI for testing and inclusion in a federal database called the Combined DNA Index System. Those profiles are labeled “offender,” and become indefinitely searchable by law enforcement nationwide, according to the report. The database, which was introduced in 1998, has 22 million total DNA profiles.

In collecting the DNA, immigration agents don’t need probable cause or judicial warrants that apply in the criminal justice context, the report states, though police use the data for criminal investigations. Georgetown researchers analyzed the legality of the program and argue it is unconstitutional because it violates the 4th Amendment.


If Homeland Security agents continue collecting DNA at the rate the agency projects, one-third of the profiles in the federal database used for criminal investigations will be from migrants and immigrants, researchers projected. That’s based on the Department of Justice’s prediction that immigration agents would submit 748,000 samples per year.

“The federal government is amassing a huge trove of DNA, starting with a racialized, often traumatized, and politically powerless group: noncitizens,” the report states. “And it is using the federal agency that operates with the fewest practical constraints and least oversight — the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — to do it.”

In its 2024 fiscal year budget request, the FBI sought to nearly double its budget of $57 million for processing DNA samples, citing the need to process samples collected by Homeland Security agents.

As part of a House appropriations hearing in April 2023, FBI Director Christopher Wray submitted a statement acknowledging the agency faced a backlog of 650,000 samples and that the addition of noncitizens’ DNA had “created massive budget and personnel shortfalls.”

Researchers interviewed several people who said they were unaware their DNA had been collected, though internal policies stipulate that agents must inform people beforehand. Others said they submitted to a cheek swab under threat of criminal prosecution if they didn’t comply.

In response to a June 2022 email from the Georgetown center researcher, Valentina Seeley, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, said those who don’t comply with DNA sampling are warned of consequences “and subsequently referred for criminal prosecution” if noncompliance persists.


Stevie Glaberson, one of the report authors, said that regardless of whether immigration agents adequately inform people in their custody, the process is coercive.

“Even when people know what’s happening, they’re terrified to ask questions, they’re terrified to object, they’re terrified to refuse,” she said.