The Department of Health and Human Services said the tests are intended to speed reunifications following a court order, but they raise questions about what planning went into the separation policy.
Facing a looming deadline to reunite kids and families separated at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, the federal government is using DNA testing to link children with their parents.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Office of Refugee Resettlement that is tasked with housing unaccompanied minors, said on a call with reporters that it would use DNA testing to expedite reunification.
As part of a preliminary injunction last week, US District Court Judge Dana Sabraw gave the government until July 26 to reunite families. In cases involving children under age 5, Sabraw allowed the government only until Tuesday, July 10, to accomplish the reunions.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that the typical method of verifying parentage with documents such as a birth certificate would take too long if the agency is to comply with the court order.
The decision to use DNA matching to speed reunions left questions about how carefully the Department of Homeland Security and HHS planned for the separation of parents and children. Advocates have complained for weeks that they have been unable to use the DHS computer system to locate children and parents and there have been multiple reports of parents who do not know where their children are being held or who have ben deported without their children.
Jonathan White, a commander in the US Public Health Service and the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, said the DNA will be collected via cheek swab by a contractor and will only be used for the purposes of linking up kids with their parents. But before a DNA test is conducted, the agency first must have a claim of a relationship between a child and an adult, White said. He did not say how that claim would be established.
During the call, HHS officials said the department had fewer than 3,000 children in its custody who’d been separated from their parents, but did not give specific numbers. The officials said the department is holding just 100 children under age 5 who’ve been separated from their families.
Under the administration’s zero tolerance policy, which calls for the prosecution for illegal entry of every adult caught crossing the border without proper documents, parents crossing with kids ended up in federal custody to face charges. The administration claimed that that left it with no choice but to separate them from their children, who could not be jailed. Images and recordings of kids crying for their parents set off a backlash from Republicans and Democrats, and President Donald Trump quickly issued an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to keep detained families together.
But there was little evidence that the administration had a mechanism for quickly reuniting families, prompting Judge Sabraw’s order.
Advocates for immigrants took a dim view of HHS’s plans to use DNA to match children to parents.
Jennifer Falcon, a spokesperson for the advocacy group RAICES, noted that the program will give the US government the ability to track the families, including young children who have never faced criminal charges.
“This would allow the government to conduct surveillance on these children for the rest of their lives,” Falcon said. “This is a further demonstration of administration’s incompetence and admission of guilt.”
Immigration advocates working with the separated families previously told BuzzFeed News that DNA tests won’t really help. In most cases, the main obstacle isn’t identifying lost children but overcoming the logistic and legal hurdles to putting families back together.
It further drives home the point that federal government never registered parents and kids properly, Falcon said.
“The children, some as young as 2 months old, cannot possibly give permission for this,” Falcon said.