DHS plans to collect biometric data is ‘end-around Congress,’ migrant advocates say

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Department of Homeland Security’s recent announcement that it will begin collecting biometric data from migrants — such as iris and facial scans, and DNA –breaches the agency’s authority, migrant advocates say.

Efrén Olivares, Racial and Economic Justice Program Director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the implementation of such measures “outrageous and we should all be concerned because if the government develops the infrastructure to do this at this scale without any new justification then there will nothing stopping them from using this as a surveillance tool for all of us.”

Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer Efren Olivares is director of the nonprofit organization’s Racial and Economic Justice Program. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

DHS on Tuesday announced it would be “expanding department authorities and methods for collecting biometrics.” And said “using DNA or DNA test results to help establish ‘family units’ would help petitioners and DHS verify claims of genetic relationships and keep adults who are in custody from misrepresenting themselves as biological parents of minors who are not related to them.”

The agency promised to “modernize biometrics collection and authorize expanded use of biometrics beyond background checks to include identity verification, secure document production and records management.”

“This proposed rule eliminates any ambiguity surrounding the Department’s use of biometrics, setting clear standards for how and why we collect and use this information,” Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli said. “Leveraging readily available technology to verify the identity of an individual we are screening is responsible governing. The collection of biometric information also guards against identity theft and thwarts fraudsters who are not who they claim to be.”

The agency promised it “would create clear rules for using the information collected,” however those rules were not released nor specified.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, takes a photo of an incoming traveler at the Progreso Port of Entry in South Texas using high-tech biometric facial recognition software. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

In February, prior to the pandemic, U.S. Customs and Border Protection began using biometric facial-comparison technology to screen travelers coming into the United States through a South Texas port of entry in the town of Progreso. It was part of a pilot program that at the time was only used on pedestrian travelers. The facial recognition technology is still in use, a CBP officer told Border Report on Thursday.

The agency “has no plans to modify its biometric programs based on the NPRM (notice of proposed rule making),” the official said.

In March, DHS officials called on technology companies for biometric submissions to be used at ports of entry and in the field.

But Olivares and others who are opposed to the use of controversial biometric data question what safeguards will be put in place to protect the privacy of the information and how the information will be used. Olivares charges this also is a way for the agency to sidestep Congress, which has not approved legislation that would allow for the use of biometric technology.

“This is an end-run around Congress, there have been bills proposed by Congress that has not approved it, so Congress has not changed the law for this and now this is being done by executive fiat,” Olivares said.

In fact, a current measure was filed by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, that would forbid such technology use.

Markey, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, filed the proposed legislation on June 25 that would “prohibit biometric surveillance by the Federal Government without explicit statutory authorization and to withhold certain Federal public safety grants from State and local governments that engage in biometric surveillance.” The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020 would make it unlawful to conduct such surveillance.

Olivares said that extracting DNA to match adults with children would not work in the case of families with adopted children.

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