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Biden to withdraw Trump rule collecting DNA from immigrants, citizen sponsors

Biden to withdraw Trump rule collecting DNA from immigrants, citizen sponsors
© Greg Nash

The Biden administration plans to withdraw a Trump-era proposal that would have greatly expanded the biometric data collected from immigrants, quashing a policy that would have allowed the government to demand eye scans, DNA and other data from those seeking to come to the U.S.

The proposal from late in Trump's term never took effect, but immigration advocates were unnerved when the Biden administration earlier this year reopened the rule for comment, fueling concern the new administration would seek a similar pathway.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will withdraw the rule Friday, a source familiar with the plan told The Hill. The plans were first reported by BuzzFeed News.

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“This was one part of a multipart effort by the Trump administration to dramatically expand the personally identifiable information collected from noncitizens during their four years in office, but this was by far the most sweeping one,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director for the American Immigration Council.

“It would have doubled the population of people subjected to biometric collection every year and radically redefined what biometrics are in the immigration context, taking it from fingerprints to include DNA, palm prints, iris scans and including technologies that have yet to be proven effective and that are not fully understood by the general population.”

Under the Trump proposal, anything from palm prints to voiceprints could be collected from those seeking green cards or U.S. citizenship. Such information could also be required from U.S. citizens if DHS needed to establish a family relationship.

The proposal also would have eliminated any age restrictions for collecting biometrics. Under current regulations, biometrics collection is typically restricted to those 14 and older.

"As those technologies become available and can be incorporated as appropriate, it gives the agency the flexibility to utilize them. And then it also would give the agency the authority down the road, as new technologies become available and are reliable, secure, etc., to pivot to using those, as well," a DHS official said when the rule was first proposed.

But Loweree warned that DHS would have been creating a massive database — one that would be used to track immigrants throughout their application process and even after gaining U.S. citizenship.

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“You’d have 6 million peoples’ information collected every year, year over year, and the department could keep that forever, raising significant concerns about secondary uses,” he said.

Other Trump-era policies that expanded DHS’s biometric data collection, however, have yet to be withdrawn.

Customs and Border Protection under Trump proposed a rule allowing the agency to use facial recognition software on noncitizens at ports of entry.

And last April the Trump administration began collecting DNA from immigration detainees in their custody.

“The Biden administration is right to withdraw this DHS proposal, which would have massively expanded the government’s collection of sensitive biometric identifiers out of all proportion to any legitimate need," Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement to The Hill.

"But it also isn’t enough to protect the privacy and dignity of immigrants, their families, and their communities. The Biden administration must also rescind the Trump-era rule requiring forced DNA collection from individuals in immigration detention.”

Updated at 11:47 a.m.