Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times
The Times Editorial Board - September 23, 2020
You might think that the massive collection of biometric data from legal immigrants seeking or holding green cards, as well as from some of their U.S. citizen sponsors, would be a bridge too far even for the Trump administration. But when it comes to intrusive immigration policy, no bridge is too far for this crew.
The Department of Homeland Security, through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, proposed new rules this month that would let the department collect DNA, iris scans, voice prints and photos to feed facial recognition programs from anyone seeking or holding a green card. At the moment, that group consists of more than 12 million people who are already lawful permanent residents of the United States.
But the government doesn’t want to stop there. According to the proposed rule, the government also is considering collecting that biometric data from U.S. citizens who have sponsored an immigrant, most often through family reunification. “DHS proposes that any applicant, petitioner, sponsor, beneficiary, or individual filing or associated with a benefit or other request, including U.S. citizens and without regard to age, must appear for biometrics collection” unless the government decides it’s not necessary. “There may be limited circumstances where biometric collection would be unnecessary or duplicative.” That’s not a very big carve-out.
The blowback from immigration and privacy advocates was swift. “Collecting a massive database of genetic blueprints won’t make us safer,” said Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It will simply make it easier for the government to surveil and target our communities and to bring us closer to a dystopian nightmare.” Ur Jaddou, former USCIS chief counsel during the Obama administration, told Buzzfeed News: “It is stunning…. What is the reason for this? What is the problem they are trying to solve?”
The reason, according to USCIS, is the government wants tools to better verify the identity of immigrants, although it has not made the case that it is having a problem doing that now. And given the pretexts President Trump has offered for other immigration crackdowns — forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for processing; separating children from parents as a deterrent to others; banning entry by people from predominately Muslim countries — this administration does not have a well of credibility to draw from.
Yes, the government has a responsibility to vet the identities and backgrounds of people seeking to immigrate; it currently relies primarily on fingerprints, photographs and documents. It also has begun using DNA tests to verify the familial connections of people seeking asylum, and is collecting DNA from all detained immigrants to check against criminal databases. The broad contours included in these new proposed rules would amount to an audacious violation of privacy of people who have permission to be here. And that violation would explode into unconscionable overreach if the government starts amassing a biometrics database on citizens who support legal immigrants in their quest for permanent residency.
Trump has overseen one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s approach to immigration, on par with the 19th century laws that barred Chinese immigrantsoutright and later laws that favored arrivals from predominately white Western and Northern European countries. Remember, Trump launched his campaign in 2015 with a speech denouncing immigrants from Mexico in crass and offensive terms. It’s been downhill ever since, including his broad denigration of people from “shithole countries” in Africa and Central America.
Trump’s done all this with, at a minimum, the tacit support of mainstream Republican lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who have been largely silent in the face of the president’s inhumane acts and blatantly racist statements. So it’s probably asking too much that the political party that purportedly believes in a smaller, less intrusive government might stand up against Trump’s efforts to create a database of personal biometric data for the sole purpose of identifying people who are complying with federal immigration law. But it’s not too much to hope that voters will add this bit of overreach to the bill of particulars they consult as they look at their November ballots.