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Homeland Security to test DNA of families at border in cases of suspected fraud

A migrant mother and her children walk along a road with other Central American migrants during their journey toward the United States, in Tuzantan, Mexico, on April 16. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

Homeland Security officials said Wednesday they will start an “unprecedented” pilot program to test the DNA of families arriving at the U.S. border as soon as next week, calling the measure an investigative tool to root out fraudulent cases of migrants traveling with children who are not their own.

Under the pilot program, Homeland Security investigators can request cheek-swab DNA samples if they suspect that an adult and a minor claiming to be family members do not in fact have a parent-child relationship.

A record number of Central American families have been crossing the southern border with Mexico in recent months, and DHS officials say the migrants are taking advantage of “loopholes” in the U.S. immigration system that enable those arriving with a child to avoid detention and swift deportation.

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A private contractor, Ande, which specializes in “rapid DNA” screening for law enforcement and other government purposes, will conduct the DNA tests at the border. Results will be available in two hours, DHS officials said, after which samples and data will be destroyed.

“This pilot will help us determine whether this technology can strengthen our investigative processes and potentially rescue more children from dangerous situations,” said a DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to brief reporters.

DHS officials said they have detected more than 1,000 cases of fraudulent families trying to cross the border since October, reaching that determination through document screenings and other traditional investigative methods. The agency has been reluctant to introduce DNA testing procedures, in part because of privacy and data storage concerns, officials said.

In some instances, migrant children are paired with uncles, cousins or other relatives who might not be a parent but are part of the same family. But there have been other, more worrisome allegations that some desperate families are accepting payment in exchange for allowing their children to travel with adults who view the minors as an entry ticket to the United States.

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Jennifer Podkul, senior policy director at Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), said she is concerned that legitimate families — including those traveling with adopted children — could be separated because of the DNA tests.

“We have one case of a child who said, ‘That’s my dad,’ but didn’t know he was the stepfather,” she said. “That’s very different from being smuggled by a human trafficker.”

DHS officials say the DNA tests will be one of several investigative methods they will employ, and they will evaluate the full circumstances of suspected fraud cases to target criminal acts.

Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), will lead the pilot program — not the U.S. Border Patrol. But officials said they view the program as a chance to evaluate its potential for expanded use.

HSI teams working on the pilot said they have interviewed 101 parents and children since April 18 who “presented indices of fraud,” and detected 29 families making false claims. From those investigations, 45 individuals were referred for prosecution and attorneys filed charges against 33, officials said.

If U.S. authorities determine that a child is not with a biological parent, they typically separate them and refer the minor to the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates a network of shelters of “unaccompanied” migrant children.

Other cases that DHS considers fraudulent involve parents arriving with children who claim to be underage but are, in fact, older than 18. And officials said document fraud is common at the border; homeland security officials say that corrupt officials in Central American countries — especially in Guatemala — have been issuing inexpensive fake birth certificates.

This year, unauthorized border crossings have surged to their highest levels in more than a decade, and U.S. authorities along the Mexico border detained more than 103,000 migrants in March. Nearly 60 percent were families, a greater share than ever, and large groups of migrants continue to cross the border and surrender to U.S. authorities, often to request asylum.

Many of the Central Americans say they are fleeing violence and desperate poverty, but there are financial incentives to bring children on the journey. Smuggling organizations offer discount pricing, because families need only be escorted to the U.S. border — not across it — so they can surrender to U.S. agents and start the asylum process.