San Bernardino County district attorney asks Congress to make DNA collection part of immigration reform

by jeeg 31. January 2013 20:53

One of Southern California's top prosecutors is urging Congress to require immigrants to submit DNA samples as a condition to staying in the United States.

San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos sent a hand-delivered letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asking that pending immigration reforms include provisions allowing immigrants' DNA samples to be cross-checked against the FBI's database in order to prevent criminals from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

"If they want to really be here on some form of work visa, or whatever Congress decides on a path to citizenship, I want to make sure they're law abiding," Ramos said.

Ramos said he believes the vast majority of illegal immigrants are otherwise law-abiding people who have entered the United States in search of work and he anticipates only a very small percentage of immigrants will be blocked from citizenship by a DNA test linking them to criminal activity.

Immigration reform ascended to the top of Washington's agenda this week after eight senators - including 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, Arizona's senior senator, and likely 2016 GOP contender Marco Rubio, Florida's junior senator - on Monday asked for new immigration laws that would provide a means for illegal immigrants to pursue citizenship alongside some new enforcement procedures.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday delivered a speech asking for immigration reforms including a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Ramos' proposal could end up being just one of many immigration proposals sent to Congress, but if DNA testing receives serious consideration, the district attorney's idea could be at the center of serious debate between security concerns on one side and privacy on the other.

"What kind of precedent is this setting for DNA collection for anybody?" asked Lucero Chavez, an immigrant rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

News of Ramos' idea also reached the New York City offices of the Center for Responsible Genetics before the close of business Wednesday, and the group's president said he has serious reservations about the proposal.

"There's a false belief that DNA is unassailable as an instrument of police use," said center President Jeremy Gruber, an attorney and former ACLU field director.

"The truth is that there's only limited value for DNA in these circumstances," he continued, "and the human rights and privacy considerations for having such a database is overwhelming."

The Center for Responsible Genetics' mission includes privacy advocacy. The group lobbied for the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits health insurers and employers from discriminating on the basis of an individual's genetic information.

Privacy concerns were not the only objections raised after Ramos floated his plan.

Jose Calderon, an activist and professor emeritus of sociology and Chicano studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, said taking DNA samples would continue what he sees as an unwelcome trend of spending more on immigration enforcement instead of processing citizenship applications.

Similarly, Fernando Romero of the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California said Ramos' idea assumes immigrants are likely criminals and is unnecessary given the amount of personal information, including fingerprints, immigrants must submit to authorities.

"For Mr. Ramos to come out and say this, it's really redundant, ridiculous and disrespectful," Romero said.

Ramos, in his third term as district attorney and the first Latino to be elected to that position in San Bernardino County, said he anticipates DNA testing would demonstrate that most immigrants do not have criminal records.

"I think that our nation needs to do something about the whole immigration reform," Ramos said. "I'm a second-generation Latino. My dad served in the Marine Corps. My grandparents came here from Mexico and became citizens legally."

If Congress and the president accept Ramos' proposal as part of immigration reform, immigrants' DNA would be checked against those recorded in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, also known as CODIS.

The DNA Act of 1994 allows the FBI to retain DNA profiles created in federal, state or local crime labs. Since 1998, more than 10 million offenders' profiles have been recorded in CODIS, and the FBI reports nearly 200,000 DNA hits have aided some 190,000 investigations as of December.

Although Ramos expects immigrants' applications will generate few CODIS hits, his letter to congressional leaders emphasizes that San Bernardino County, following Los Angeles and Cook counties, has the third largest population of gang members in the United States.

Ramos, who testified on behalf of the California District Attorneys Association at an August 2009 White House conference on gang violence, writes that violence associated with Latin American drug cartels is a major driver of California gang violence.

Although Ramos said he conceived his proposal as a means to check the backgrounds of undocumented immigrants who may be given opportunities to pursue citizenship, he would be open to mandating DNA tests for immigrants applying from their country of origin as a potential means to catch terrorists.

In response to privacy concerns, Ramos said collecting DNA samples would not be much different than legal requirements for himself and law enforcement officers to be fingerprinted.

The Defense Department collects DNA samples of military personnel for identification purposes.

UC Irvine law professor Jennifer Chacon said Ramos' proposal follows a trend of governments collecting more and more biometric data and may make some people - including herself - uneasy. That said, Chacon said she does not believe collecting immigrants' DNA samples would be unconstitutional because applying for citizenship is a consensual action.

"The only question is, is this something people can live with?" she said.

Ramos also sent his letter to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both D-Calif., and House members representing San Bernardino County.

Among them, Republicans Paul Cook and Gary Miller signaled some support for the district attorney's idea.

"I just received word of this proposal today and need to investigate the specifics," Cook, R-Apple Valley, said in a statement, "but in general I'm extremely supportive of laws that take criminals off the street and keep our neighborhoods safe.

Miller, R-Rancho Cucamonga, was more explicit in his support. Miller, who has supported tight immigration laws throughout his career, said he can find no fault in the DNA sampling proposal.

"This absolutely has to be part of the equation," Miller said.

Andrew Edwards, LA Daily News



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