ICE to start administering 90-minute DNA tests on immigrant families at border – Washington Examiner
Federal immigration officers working on the U.S.-Mexico border will start “as early as next week” carrying out rapid DNA tests on immigrants in custody who claim to be related, a Department of Homeland Security official told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday evening.
The official said Immigration and Customs Enforcement will start a trial with the 90-minute DNA tests at unspecified locations on the southern border in an effort to verify familial claims and refer for prosecution adults who try to use an unrelated child to take advantage of U.S. policy.
ICE told the Examiner it has seen 29 verified fake families, each with an unrelated child and adult, since April 18. Forty-five cases were referred for prosecution for fraud and the U.S. attorney’s offices accepted 33 of those referrals. The agency hopes the pilot will allow them to increase the number of cases referred to the Justice Department.
The debut marks the first time DNA testing of any sort has been at the border. Currently, ICE and Customs and Border Protection employees must use verbal statements and written documents to verify family connections.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” the DHS official said.
The Examiner was reported last month that Homeland Security and ICE were looking at adopting ANDE, an automated system that processes cheek swabs and other DNA, to verify familial relations.
Annette Mattern, spokeswoman for the company, told the Examiner the upside to relying on science is that it cannot make a biased or flawed decision, unlike with human error.
“Identifying an individual at the border today probably requires an officer to say, ‘I don’t know if this is their kid or not their kid,’” Mattern told the Examiner. “DNA doesn’t have to make those judgments. It’s just science.”
Members of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations arm will not carry out the actual tests. Technicians with ANDE will be on site at all locations at which its mobile tests are present to handle the machines.
Adults will have to consent to self-administering a cheek swab as well as doing one for the child he or she is claiming to be related to. The swab is then inserted into the machine by the ANDE technician. ICE employees will have no contact with the swab at any point in the test, the official said.
“All of the DNA is destroyed within the machines,” said the Homeland Security official. “It’s not hooked up to any government systems.”
The official did not share who decided to go forward with the pilot or how long it will carry out the trial until a decision is made on whether to employ the technology at all ICE locations on the southern border, but described it as another tool HSI officers can use in their investigations.
“We’re looking at all the investigative tools available. This is something that we’re trying out,” the Homeland Security official said, adding there is “no silver bullet” for this type of immigration work. “Agents will have to continue relying on their training and experience.”
Homeland Security deployed special agents, forensics interviewers, and other immigration experts to the border earlier this year to help process the growing number of people who have illegally crossed into the U.S. and claimed to be part of a family. Families from Central America make up the largest demographic of immigrants arriving at the southern border.
Roughly 53,000 of the 92,000 people arrested at the southern border in March claimed to be traveling with a family member, the highest percentage and number of people in Border Patrol history.
The department has documented 3,000 incidents in the past six months in which an adult and child who claimed to be related were not. That’s a small portion of the 361,000 people Border Patrol took into custody in that timespan.
A 2015 court ruling in the Flores settlement agreement mandated families going through asylum proceedings not be held in ICE custody more than 20 days. The Trump administration has repeatedly said the ruling created an “incentive” to travel to the U.S. with real or faux family members.
The company’s technology was co-developed with the military when the Pentagon needed mobile DNA processing for missions in the Middle East and elsewhere. It had to be “ruggedized,” Mattern said, and able to be done in the back of a Humvee, making it a good fit for the border.
Last June, the FBI approved the use of ANDE. In October, it was used on human remains found after wildfires swept through Northern California. A company representative who spoke at the ConnectID conference in Washington Wednesday said each system used to identify remains in the California fire cost $225,000.
The DHS official said a “full blown privacy impact” study would need to take place if the department chose to roll out ANDE to the entire southern border.