The DNA Testing Of Immigrants Is Rooted In Race Science, Not Public Safety

Graphic By thierry ehrmann

The Trump administration proposed a new rule to collect DNA samples from immigrants crossing the border on Monday, Oct. 21. The ruling comes as part of a greater plan to compile genetic information on individuals into a government database. This unnecessary DNA collection would not only be a violation of human rights, but it also acts as a perpetuation of stereotypes about immigrants and a legal representation of neo-facist eugenics.

Since its development, DNA testing technology has had wide-ranging implications. Between the Innocence Project and 23andMe, DNA testing has done everything from saving people’s lives on death row to soothing middle class white families’ anxieties that they are really Irish. However, these applications, be they trivial or, are not something that anyone can write-off as a mere technological innovation. Like all technologies, there are always ways that it can be leveraged against the most vulnerable of populations. 

The Trump administration, as represented by Attorney General William Barr, issued this proposed rule and published it the following day on Oct. 22. The actual legal maneuvering of the rule is the removal of the provision 28 CFR 28.12(b)(4) in the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005As reported by NPR, Barr claimed that the removal of this provision would result in the collection of “DNA information on about 748,000 immigrants annually, including asylum-seekers presenting themselves at legal ports of entries.”

According to the existing rule, the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005 “authorizes the Attorney General to collect DNA samples from individuals who are arrested, facing charges or convicted and from non-United States persons who are detained [by] the United States.” The provision that Barr proposed to be removed “authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to exempt certain detained aliens from DNA-sample collection.”

Notice that this rule will only be extended to “certain aliens.” NBC News reports that “[t]he Justice Department wrote there would be exceptions in the proposed rule for immigrants legally entering the U.S. or being processed for lawful admission into the U.S.” However, this can affect all people immigrating to the U.S., extending even to people detained in the ports of entry or airports. 

The rule defines the administration’s reasons to collect this information: “[t]he purpose utilized to further public safety and the interests of justice in relation to immigration detainees.” However, this places immigrants as a group that threatens “public safety.” If they were truly working towards “the interests of justice” then the U.S. would not be targeting a group that has statistically less violent crime than the general U.S. population.

To think that this is the only impact of these things would be disingenuous. It presupposes that DNA information from non-citizens should still be under the jurisdiction of a government that denies them other basic human rights. It immediately criminalizes them akin to our nation’s incarcerated people without even the scant protections that populations enjoy in the U.S. 

The way that the rule discusses immigrants places the discussion squarely in the context of U.S.-Latin American immigration. The proposed rule includes specific references to “the southwest border” heavily identifying the bill with immigration from that region. 

The rule also plays into criminalizing Latin-American immigrants, a common immigration tactic in the conservative toolbox. The rule cites the case of Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, better known as the “Railway Killer.” He committed at least seven murders and was repeatedly repatriated to Mexico between 1998 to 1999. The paragraph then extrapolates that had there been DNA testing possible in his prosecution, then it could have been used to convict him. This has proven to be a common tactic for conservatives in the immigration discourse. Even the Conservative Think Tank, the CATO Institution cannot bring themselves to deny that statistically illegal immigrants are 50% less likely to be convicted of crime and have lower incarceration rates as compared to non-immigrants. 

This also transitions into a greater discussion of how genetic information and its privacy issues relates to a broader trend in the use of DNA to justify ancestry. From Mass. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test results to 23andMe’s ‘Informed Consent’ Research, genetic information is becoming a feature in the U.S. cultural discourse on race. This is a fast growing biomedical governmental enterprise whose legality gives them another hold over the marginalized. This proposed rule hijacks the discourse about genetic rights and reinforces how the U.S. legal system constructs the idea of the “immigrant” and uses this to affirm a biological reality of race.  

This rule specifically targets a racialized group and represents a legal reflection of the “Genetification of Race,” a concept discussed by Tina Sikka, a writer for Jacobin. The use of genetic information can be used to construct an “other”’ mentality through the sheen of biological science and capitalist innovation. 

This rule issued by Attorney General Barr expands state power to racialize and criminalize Latin American immigrants. From this rule, one can easily see another legal step in removing protections for people immigrating to the U.S. by taking from them ownership over their biological data. The bio-medical legal framework is still in the process of development in the U.S. The issue lies in how data is going to be weaponized against vulnerable groups, people of color, LGBTQA+ individuals, incarcerated people, people immigrating to the U.S. and the working class at large.

Ian Edwards is a third year Earth System Science and Comparative Literature double major. They can be reached at edwardsi@uci.edu.