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DHS to implement DNA test program to detect fake migrant families

(Getty Images Photo/Mario Tama)

PHOENIX – As part of stepped-up efforts to identify fake migrant families trying to cross the southern U.S. border and avoid detention, the Department of Homeland Security plans to conduct a DNA testing pilot program.

Initial testing will be done for two or three days as soon as next week at two undisclosed border locations, a DHS official said Wednesday.

The official said DHS wants to find out if DNA testing can be a useful tool in combating the problem of children being trafficked across the border.

Testing will only be done on migrants who are suspected of fraudulently presenting themselves as part of a family and sign consent forms in their own language, the official said.

In the presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement testing agents, the adults who consent will swab their own cheeks and the cheeks of the children with them.

Testing can be completed in an average of two hours. The official said all samples will be destroyed after testing, and ICE won’t keep any DNA profile information.

When fraud is detected, the cases will be presented to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution. Charges could include ID fraud, false claims and unlawful entry.

Parents who aren’t related by blood to the children will have to present documentation of legal guardianship.

The DHS said the program will be done with existing funds. Earlier Wednesday, the White House said it would need an additional $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid for the border. The 2019 fiscal year budget already contained $415 million for humanitarian assistance at the border, including $28 million in medical care, senior administration officials said.

Earlier this week, authorities said they allocated resources to focus on human smuggling and fake families last month, when ICE Homeland Security Investigations deployed support teams to seven border locations, including Yuma. The teams included HSI special agents, forensic interview specialists, document examiners and victim assistant specialists.

The DHS official said that since April 18, HSI agents interviewed 101 family units suspected of fraud, and 29 were confirmed as fake.

Last week, border authorities said they’d started to increase the biometric data they take from migrant children 13 years old and younger, including fingerprints.

“We’re committed to protecting children by ensuring they’re with their parents upon arrival and not used as pawns by the transnational criminal organizations that may be involved in smuggling children,” Lon Weigand, HSI Phoenix deputy special agent told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Wednesday.

The Border Patrol said that in the last year, it’s stopped roughly 3,100 adults and children fraudulently posing as families so they can be released into the U.S. quickly rather than face detention or rapid deportation.

DHS has also warned of “child recycling,” cases where they say children allowed into the U.S. were smuggled back into Central America to be paired up again with other adults in fake families — something they say is impossible to catch without fingerprints or other biometric data.

But the Border Patrol has not publicly identified anyone arrested in a “child recycling” scheme or released data on how many such schemes have been uncovered.

Advocates say they’re worried that in the name of stopping fraud, agents might take personal information from children that could be used against them later.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Martha Maurer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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