Government To Start Collecting DNA Samples On Travelers Detained Entering The U.S.

Your every move is tracked when you travel. There are cameras all over airports and even biometric boarding is spreading. Of course your moves are tracked all the time. I originally made peace with signing up for Global Entry knowing that the government was collecting all cell phone geolocation data anyway, and this was pre-Snowden.

But now your DNA will become a precondition for international travel, at the discretion of Customs and Border Protection. That’s because the U.S. government has started a pilot program to collect DNA from people taken into CBP custody, with plans to roll the program out nationwide.

Once collected, DNA samples “will “go into a massive criminal database run by the FBI, where it would be held indefinitely.”

  • The program doesn’t just apply to foreigners. It includes U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as long as they’re at least believed to be 14 years old.

  • Refusal to submit to DNA testing “could lead to a misdemeanour criminal charge” according to the government memo outlining the program.

  • This won’t even help identify people attempting to cross the border, since the plan is to mail the tests to the FBI” and “[b]y the time the results are processed, the memo said, the people in question may have already been released, deported or transferred to another federal agency.”

Copyright: andreyuu / 123RF Stock Photo

This will allow the government to build a DNA database of anyone is chooses that re-enters the country. While a government memo stipulates that DNA tests will only be done on those who are placed into detention (at this point), the government has broad latitude for detention at the border and has mistakenly detained Americans entitled to enter the U.S.

The 30 day test will begin Monday, January 13 at the Canadian border near Detroit and on the Mexican border at Eagle Pass, Texas. There will also be an Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail designated for pilot testing. While border patrol agents “are not currently trained on DNA collection measures, health and safety precautions, or the appropriate handling of DNA samples for processing” the Department of Homeland Security promises that the FBI “will provide a training video.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If this is for illegals so the government can get serious about the problem and keep them out, good. If this applies to citizens and legitimate tourists, this is very concerning. Citizens and legitimate tourists are regularly harassed by TSA and customs and anyone it seems can be arbitrarily and capriciously detained for no good reason. The war on drugs of course plays a part in that a lot of these infringements on fundamental freedoms happen with the war on drugs as a pretext (like civil asset forfeiture).

  2. This is absolutely insane. Why take DNA samples of individuals detained for no reason?

    I ask this because my daughter, a US citizen born and raised here on US soil to US citizens, all Caucasian, is detained EVERY time she enters the US. She has never done anything wrong, never broken any laws. She has pulled aside and detained for up to 4 hours, then released, with such statements as “we don’t know why you’ve been detained in the first place” and “I guess there is no reason to hold you, you are fine to go.”

    She has been grilled with such questions as “Why did you go to XXXXXX for 3 weeks?” [college project]. “Why did you spend 4 months in XXXXXX?” [exchange student]. “What made you decide to study in XXX XXXXXX?” [graduate school is cheaper abroad!]. “Why would you want to travel around Europe, isn’t there plenty to see in the US?” “How could you afford to do that?” [hello! has anyone ever heard of a savings account and gifts from family and friends? or maybe young people don’t save nowadays?] and the most insulting question, after she has handed over her US passport to the interrogation team, “no, seriously, where are you REALLY from–you can’t possibly be a US citizen?” [says right in her passport what state she was born in!]

    And now they are going to do a DNA swab. Insulting.

  3. Both those areas are involved with legal and illegal trans-border immigration.

    You can bet those who cross illegally will not be willingly “released” unless the Circuit Courts hold otherwise — and it is doubtful that the 5th Circuit covering Texas will do so. Not clear what the Circuit Court covering Detroit’s stance is.

    Good changes and it is not too hard to swab the inside of the cheek, Gary, especially when compared to their other duties.

    Of course, certain individuals will no doubt be subject to this at airports upon arrival but I expect that to be used sparingly.

    The major reason for this implementation of this procedure is to see if someone is already in the criminal database, and more importantly to prevent people smuggling –passing around a juvenile and claiming that they are a family member.

    I hope I educated you, Gary, and the other virtue signalers in this forum.

  4. @Gary. I went back and re-read you linked post on obtaining Global Entry pass. I agree with you on the civil liberties front. I also had some hesitation about giving my fingerprints for Global Entry, but of course that hesitation was stupid. When I went to work for bank/financial institution, they took my fingerprints, and I surmise that they send those fingerprints to the federal government.

    Talking about fingerprints, last time I flew into BKK, the Thai government took both my fingerprints and digital photo upon entry, before stamping my passport. Based on this, I am expecting to see fingerprints upon entry to be more common at other countries going forward.

  5. Thailand has been capturing some fingerprints and digital photos of visitors for over a decade, but that’s not DNA captured at ports of entry.

    US citizens can be detained at the border even when such persons are recognized as US citizens and legally free to roam in the US if it weren’t for CBP. In other words, watch this too become a law enforcement fishing expedition that hits even innocent US citizens at times.

  6. @GuWonder. Thailand has been taking digital pictures upon entry at BKK for years. This is the first time I have seen digital fingerprints upon entry.

    However, surprisingly enough I totally agree with you that DNA upon entry is way worse. I also agree that it will lead to all sorts of unethical law enforcement fishing expeditions. 100% chance, it will be used against innocent people.

    Moreover, DNA is also kind is a fingerprint to your whole genome. A comprehensive database of genomes would be seriously invasive. It should be noted, they do not have to get your DNA, to build such a database. If your sister, brother, father, mother, children… have DNA tests, they can infer almost all of your genome from that information.

    Does anyone here actually trust the government not to abuse that information? I don’t.

  7. My dad is 89 and no longer has fingerprints readable by machine.

    I’ve told him he should become a contract killer.

    This DNA thing could screw up his only opportunity for meaningful work.

    Why does the government hate old people so much?

  8. I find most peculiar that people think fingerprints are one of the best methods to ID someone, when in reality, as you get older, fingerprints disappear.
    My husband and I have had Global Entry ever since it became available and have renewed it since. My husband, given his age, never had fingerprints so the ticket produced by the machine comes out, he gives it to the officer who glances at it, then looks at the passport and ok’s him to proceed.
    I understand since the government knows this is an issue with the elderly, they are working on implementing iris scanning as the future method for Global Entry identification.

  9. RE: Thailand fingerprints upon entry at BKK. It was my impression that Thailand is now taking everyone’s digital fingerprints upon entry. I am curious whether other people have had their fingerprints taken upon entry at BKK in the last year.

  10. @Musketeer. When I arrived in EWR from LHR last month, the global entry machine did not ask for my fingerprints. I was wondering why.

  11. I would declare my 4th and 5th Amendment rights and decline any DNA collection without a court order. It this does not work, I’d lawyer up and sue the pants off the government.

  12. And what about all those non-Americans – business travelers, tourists, foreign students, border-adjacent Canadians crossing to visit relatives, buy groceries, etc. – who are not able to avail themselves of any of the “rights” guaranteed in the Constitution? I’d hate to be a business-owner who counts on visitors for sales.

    Another four years of this withdrawal into its own shell (less trade, fewer visitors, no foreign talent welcome) and America will be well on its way to becoming irrelevant.

  13. @Chaz- You would do no such thing….and you know it. Refusal to give your DNA would mean refusal of entry into the US and you’d pay to be sent back from the country you originated from. Lawyer away…you have to pay for that and the US G has hundreds and thousands of lawyers standing by to fight your claim (while you are outside the US none the less).

  14. @Paulz – I would do exactly the same a Chaz. A US Citizen cannot be refused entry to the US. This seems like it would be a pretty compelling “unreasonable search and seizure” case.

  15. @Gary Reading the article you linked to: “The memo said agents will not take DNA from people entering the country legally or being held for further screening without being placed into detention.”, so your statement “But now your DNA will become a precondition for international travel, at the discretion of Customs and Border Protection” is false. If you are entering the country legally they can’t take your DNA. If you go to secondary screening they can’t take your DNA. Trying to suggest they will start taking DNA from citizens as a precondition of travel unnecessarily alarmist and is an outright lie. Saying some US citizens in the past have been mistakenly detained doesn’t mean that their policy is to now demand DNA from US citizens. I’m not a fan of this program unless someone is convicted of an offense, but lets not make it into something its not either. Also, do understand that immigration can’t keep US citizens out of the country and they can’t charge citizens with a crime for refusing to give DNA. That is pretty basic constitutional law.

  16. @OJS I can’t remember, but I know in that part of the world more and more countries are taking fingerprints so its not surprising.

  17. @KimmiA In the article linked it clearly states that people like your daughter entering the country legally would not have to give a DNA sample. In addition they also I don’t believe what you describe constitutes your daughter being detained for these purposes. They specifically say people held for further screening would not have to give a DNA sample either. I think further screening is what your daughter gets and detainment is when they take custody of people and send them to the processing center. If she keeps getting stopped it sounds like her name is on a list somewhere. May be worth consulting an attorney to see if a complaint can be lodged and see if something can be done to limit this from happening every time.

  18. Bill,

    If this continues, expands and remains, it will just be a matter of time until CBP collects the DNA of some US citizens entering the US legally and yet being held for further screening with or without being placed into detention facilities. Even having prima facie evidence of US citizenship and identity and being free of criminal history/activity may not be a timely shield against such governmental collection of DNA or ending up under detention before being released.

    Even if this DNA collection were restricted to detention facilities, what constitutes a detention facility in the eyes of the the government may not even be static over time.

  19. @ Other Just Saying
    Bangkok fingerprints, in and out , is standard. Sometimes they forget to ask and the system doesn’t seem to prompt them to require it ( that would suggest it’s not being used to verify your identity, but rather for some unclear purpose)

  20. @Paulz — you don’t know me! I’m a “principle” sort of guy, just like the guys on YouTube who’ve denied police/ICE unwarranted searches. I know the law and the constitution. They might be able to hold me temporarily, but they CANNOT deny me entry to my own country.

    Repeat after me: “Am I being detained, or am I free to go?”

    If you don’t exercise your constitutional rights, you’ll LOSE THEM. Don’t let “BIG BROTHER” win. Lawyer up!

  21. US DHS and its agencies’ predecessor parts have even had some US citizens detained for weeks on end where it wasn’t a mistake with some such persons perhaps having been free to move about if only for not having had the misfortune of using a US port of entry legally to return to the US when they did. And there are also its blunders where the US has deported US citizens from the US.

    And even if none of this would happen again, US DHS is mission creep central and gravitates toward treating at least some US citizens as badly as foreign visitors at times and has shown growing stalker tendencies and a desire to go after more people at that.

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