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US to start collecting DNA from people detained at border

HOUSTON — The U.S. government on Monday launched a pilot program to collect DNA from people in immigration custody and submit it to the FBI, with plans to expand nationwide.

The information would go into a massive criminal database run by the FBI, where it would be held indefinitely. A memo outlining the program published Monday by the Department of Homeland Security said U.S. citizens and permanent residents holding a “green card” who are detained could be subject to DNA testing, as well as asylum seekers and people entering the country without authorization. Refusing to submit DNA could lead to a misdemeanor criminal charge, the document said.

President Donald Trump’s administration announced last year it would seek to expand its use of biometrics to stop migrant adults from bringing children and falsely posing as parents. Whistleblowers had also complained U.S. Customs and Border Protection was violating federal law that requires agencies to collect DNA from people they arrest or detain.

Immigrant advocates and privacy experts have raised alarms and questioned whether data collected to stop criminal activity could instead be used for surveillance.

The DHS memo acknowledged that the DNA its agents collect may not be immediately useful. Agents plan to take saliva swabs of detained people, then mail them to the FBI. By 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.

Stephen Kang, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned whether the U.S. was creating “a DNA bank of immigrants that have come through custody for no clear reason.”

“It raises a lot of very serious, practical concerns, I think, and real questions about coercion,” Kang said.

Starting Monday, CBP will collect swabs from people apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol at the Canadian border in or near Detroit, as well as people detained at the official port of entry at Eagle Pass, Texas, across from Piedras Negras, Mexico. CBP said its pilot program will last 90 days. In Detroit, people as young as 14 will be subject to DNA collection.

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.

CBP has wrongly accused American citizens in the past of entering the country illegally. An 18-year-old born in Texas was held for more than three weeks last year.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is currently holding more than 40,000 people in medium- or long-term detention, will designate one of its jails for pilot testing.

Both ICE and CBP will eventually expand their data collection nationally, according to the memo.

A top Border Patrol official last year warned that expanding DNA collection could hurt the orderly processing of migrants.

“Even once such policies and procedures were put in place, Border Patrol Agents are not currently trained on DNA collection measures, health and safety precautions, or the appropriate handling of DNA samples for processing,” wrote Brian Hastings, chief of the Border Patrol’s law enforcement directorate.

The DHS memo published Monday said the FBI will provide a training video.

Address changes to be automated for voter registration

PHOENIX — State officials have agreed to alter procedures to ensure that Arizonans who change address aren’t turned away at the polls because their voter registrations have not been updated.

The deal requires the Department of Transportation and the Secretary of State’s Office to revamp the procedures used when someone shows up at an ADOT office to update an address. Put simply, any change of address for a driver’s license will automatically update the voter registration records unless the motorist opts out.

That same procedure will occur for online address changes.

Potentially more significant, any driver who changes addresses with ADOT who is not already registered to vote will be asked to sign up. And in cases of online changes, the motorist actually will have to say that he or she does not want to register to keep that from happening automatically.

Attorney Sarah Brannon of the American Civil Liberties Union acknowledged that part of the agreement by the state to do that actually is more than the original lawsuit sought. It instead was focused on those already registered to vote.

But Brannon said it’s consistent with what is required under federal law.

Petra Falcon of Promise Arizona, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, said the agreement is crucial to ensuring that people who have moved get to exercise their right to vote.

“I’m expecting my early ballot to come in,’’ she said.

“If it doesn’t show up, I’m not going to get my ballot,’’ Falcon continued. “I may not even be registered to vote anymore.’’

Until now, a motorist had to affirmatively ask that the change also be reflected on voter registration rolls. The result, according to the 2018 lawsuit filed in federal court, was that about 384,000 registered voters who updated their addresses with ADOT since the 2016 election were still registered to vote at their old addresses.

The lawsuit charged that violates federal voting laws. More to the point, it also meant that many people were likely to show up at the wrong polling place and were turned away.

The settlement filed Monday in federal court spells out that any change in address for a driver’s license “shall serve to update the customer’s voter registration record or register the customer to vote’’ unless the person says she or he does not want to do that.

There is a similar requirement for those who change addresses on ADOT websites, registering the person to vote or updating the voting files.

More practically, it requires ADOT to update its computer database to specifically allow for electronic transmission of the complete voter registration information, including any change of address, to the Secretary of State’s Office.

That upgrade apparently already was in the works when the deal was filed in court on Monday, with an expected completion date of the end of this month.

At the heart of the issue is the National Voter Registration Act which is designed to make it easier for people to register to vote.

A key provision says that any change of address form submitted to the state for driver’s licenses “shall serve as notification of change of address for voter registration.’’ Only if the person says he or she does not want to change voting address does the mandate not apply.

That language is designed to ensure that the person can vote when he or she goes to the polls near a new address. It also eliminates the problem that someone who has signed up for an early ballot will not get it, as these ballots are sent out in non-forwardable mail.

In a preliminary ruling in September 2018, U.S. District Court Judge James Teilborg acknowledged that the system in place at the time at ADOT for address changes for driver’s licenses required people to affirmatively “opt-in’’ to also having their voter information updated — directly contrary to the terms of the NVRA.

But the judge at that time declined to order the state to immediately make the changes, saying to do that so close to the November election would cause chaos.

That led to the negotiations that resulted in the deal filed Monday with the court.

Brannon stressed that nothing in the agreement alters existing Arizona laws that in most cases requires proof of citizenship before someone can register to vote. The only exception is for those who vote only in federal races who are entitled under a separate federal law to instead only avow, under penalty of perjury, that they are eligible to cast a ballot.