NEWS THIS MONTH that the U.S. government would start collecting DNA from people detained at the border seemed to sketch out a picture of dystopia: citizens, green-card holders and immigrants, including asylum-seekers, all required to hand over their most intimate identifying information to be shipped off to a massive FBI-run criminal database. The reality isn’t quite so dire, but it’s still far from rosy.

Congress passed a law in 2005 that allows the attorney general to require the collection of DNA from citizens who are arrested, charged or convicted with federal crimes, as well as from non-resident detainees. The Department of Homeland Security has historically been exempt. Now, the Justice Department proposes to revoke that exemption — which means DHS must start swabbing. The agency is piloting the program at select ports of entry.

U.S. citizens will still only be subject to the rule if they’re suspected of having run afoul of the law, so it’s immigrants (more than 740,000 of them per year after full rollout, by DOJ’s count) who will be surrendering their DNA en masse. Those who enter lawfully, with papers, will walk away unlogged. But those who arrive without documentation, whether at an official border station or not, are liable to have samples sent for indefinite storage in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database with no mechanism to petition for removal. Asylum-seekers, DHS says, won’t have to submit DNA if they show up at ports of entry — yet it’s still unclear what will happen to those whose claims are deemed ineligible.

All this raises the question: What’s the point? DHS itself acknowledges that, in many cases handled by Customs and Border Protection, the FBI won’t have processed DNA speedily enough for it to be useful in verifying identity at the border. Instead, the samples will be used for what CODIS is generally used for: investigating crimes, past and future. The only crime many of these immigrants will have committed is attempting to come to this country without the correct documents. The presumption that they are more likely than anyone else to commit crimes in the years to come is a xenophobic canard. Yet they’ll be forced to live life forever as suspects.

Already, the 2005 law expanded the number of people treated as criminals before they have been found guilty of a crime. Now, this administration seeks to expand that further. A surveillance state in the Chinese mold would almost certainly solve more murders and maybe even exonerate more innocents than a free one — but all that comes at the cost of freedom. Any step down the road away from privacy ought to be taken for a compelling reason. Here, none seems to exist.

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