DNA Testing at the Border Could Provide Cover for More Family Separations

Russell Contreras/AP Photo

Guatemalan migrant Cirila Alejandra Calelpu, 20, rests at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary migrant shelter in Las Cruces, New Mexico, after she and her three-year-old daughter were released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is piloting a rapid DNA testing program to verify the biological relationship of migrant families at the border. The program, which was set to begin this month in undisclosed locations, is the latest attempt by Trump administration officials to crack down on migrants who they believe are exploiting the U.S. immigration system to evade detention.

In effect, however, the testing provides one more tool that the administration can use to separate children from their families. Unless a child is accompanied by a biological parent or legal guardian—siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles won’t do—they’ll be taken from their relatives and placed in custody.

DHS officials describe the new testing as an effort to tackle child trafficking at and around the border, where immigration agents claim that children are being “rented out” to border crossers at increasing rates. But immigration experts contest the necessity of the program, noting the infrequency of child trafficking, and warning that testing could provide cover for increased separations of children from their relatives.

The pilot program will focus on a select number of adults suspected by Customs and Border Protection agents of posing as the parents of migrant children. The tests will take about two hours and will require a cheek swab from both child and parent.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for migrant asylum seekers when it comes to deciding what counts as a family and what doesn’t. Migrant children, with few exceptions, cannot be held in regular immigration detention facilities for more than 20 days, whether they are unaccompanied or with their family. As a result, most families picked up by Border Patrol end up being released into the country after a few weeks. There are no such detention protections for single adults.

The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, defines a “family unit” as at least one migrant child arriving with either a biological parent or a legal guardian. Absent proof of legal guardianship, any relative or caretaker, no matter how close to the child they may be, is not recognized under immigration law. Migrant children apprehended by immigration agents are usually taken from their non-parent relatives and subsequently transferred to special government-run shelters.

“Rapid DNA testing is an enormous step backwards for migrant families. It privileges biological similarities over all of the intangible features of parent-child relationships,” says César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration expert and associate professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.

Whereas DHS’s infamous family separation policy drew enough blowback for the administration to claim it was changing course (reports of parent-child separations at the border have continued into this year), non-parental family separations remain the rule, not the exception, at the border. In fact, DHS records do not even distinguish between children separated from non-parent relatives and those truly arriving alone at the border—both are labeled “unaccompanied.” This makes it difficult to take at face value recent claims by DHS about child trafficking and ill-intentioned migrants trying to game the system.

In justifying the use of DNA testing, department officials and border agents claim migrant children already in the country are being smuggled back beyond the border to be rented out to fake families looking to enter the U.S. However, DHS has yet to make public even one arrest involving such a “child recycling” scheme. Nor has it offered information on the existence of any such schemes or any investigations into them.

According to the Border Patrol, from April 2018 to March 25 of this year, federal agents say they’ve identified more than 3,100 migrants in “fraudulent family units” who have made false claims about their age or their family relationship. That figure, which accounts for only about 1 percent of all families apprehended over the past year, becomes even less impressive upon learning that DHS does not have a set definition for a fraudulent family unit.

When pressed on the figure during a congressional hearing this month, acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan was unable to say whether cases involving non-parent family members were part of the total. “We need to establish a clear definition. We need to establish consistent metrics across CBP and ICE for capturing when that family relationship has been presented as a fraudulent relationship,” said McAleenan. “That doesn’t mean a grandma or aunt with a child saying ‘we’re a family’… I wouldn’t call that fraud.”

Perhaps McAleenan wouldn’t call it fraud, but his department might very well classify it that way. And DNA testing could end up adding legitimacy to such misleading classifications, inflating counts of fraud and increasing the number of separations of non-parental families. DHS officials say that applicants who don’t come up as a direct DNA match could be federally prosecuted by ICE, though ICE insists it won’t be storing any DNA samples or additional DNA information.

Immigrant advocacy groups have pressed DHS to end non-parental family separation, except in cases where a relative is clearly unfit to take care of a child.

“What DHS is trying to do is add a scientific veneer to this policy of splitting up a child from their relatives,” says García Hernández. “The potential legal consequences and psychological trauma of separating people that are already in a realistic parent-child relationship are significant.”

The government’s fixation on biological parentage seems woefully out of step with what contemporary families are like. Among poor and working-class families from Central American countries, informal adoption is a common occurrence. It’s also out of step with what’s best for the welfare of migrant children.

Migrant children staying in government shelters can be released to a suitable sponsor, usually a parent or close relative living in the United States. Unfortunately, in many cases the best sponsor for them is the very person they were taken from at the border, who might already have been deported. In separating these children from their relatives, the government is effectively punishing them when it comes time to find them a new home.

Without further information from DHS on where non-parental families fit into this new program, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle DNA testing from Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric toward Central American migrants.

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