Merkley, Wyden, Colleagues Demand Trump Administration Abandon Plans for Expanded Biometric Data Collection in Immigration System

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), are urging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to abandon plans to dramatically expand U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) collection of information about individuals’ bodies, both non-citizens and U.S. citizens alike. The Department’s proposal would allow DHS to collect biometric information as it conducts removal proceedings, processes family-based immigration applications, and vets immigrants seeking naturalization.

In September, USCIS, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would allow USCIS to dramatically expand the populations subject to invasive biometric data collection and increase the types of data that USCIS collects. The proposal would permit USCIS to require U.S. citizens and children to submit to biometric data collection. It would also allow the agency to create detailed biological profiles of individuals involved in the immigration system by amassing data from facial scans, voice prints, and even DNA testing. By DHS’ own estimates, the proposal would lead to more than six million people sharing sensitive information about their bodies.

“Compelling non-citizens navigating the U.S. immigration system to submit to data collection involving highly sensitive and immutable information carries serious privacy risks; subjecting U.S. citizens and children to this surveillance would be unacceptable,” write the senators in their letter to Acting Secretary Chad Wolf. “Expanding biometric-data collection in this manner would chill legal immigration, be inconsistent with our privacy values, and pose disproportionate risks to individuals of color. The scope, sensitivity, and invasiveness of the proposed DHS biometric data collection program would amount to an unacceptable escalation of government surveillance.”

A copy of the senators’ letter can be found here.

In addition to his continued advocacy against the Trump administration’s diabolical immigration policies, Senator Merkley has long been raising the alarm over the rapid advancement of biometric data technologies that put people at risk of over-surveillance and over-policing, both by pressing private companies using biometric identification to ensure that Americans’ privacy is protected, and by introducing critical legislative safeguards. Those bills have included the Ethical Use of Facial Recognition Act, which Merkley introduced with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) earlier this year to safeguard Americans’ right to privacy by instituting a moratorium on all federal governmental use of the technology until Congress passes legislation outlining specific uses for the data. In August, Merkley and Sanders introduced the National Biometric Information Privacy Act of 2020 to prohibit private companies from collecting biometric data without consumers and employees’ consent, or profiting off this data.

In addition to his steadfast support for immigrant communities against Trump’s ongoing assault on their civil rights and human rights,  Senator Wyden has pressed Trump administration officials to end federal law enforcement’s weaponizing of facial recognition technology against peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights to speak out about the police killing of George Floyd and other black Americans. And he also has asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to review policies regarding the use of facial recognition technologies in federally assisted housing. 

 Additionally, Merkley and Wyden joined their colleagues this summer to introduce the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act in response to reports that federal and local law enforcement entities have engaged with facial recognition companies, and following the amplification of a shocking story involving Robert Williams. Williams was a Black man from the Detroit area who was wrongfully arrested after facial recognition technology misidentified him as the man who was seen allegedly committing a crime on a store’s surveillance camera feed.