Immigration Law

Federal officials order DNA tests to help reunite immigrant parents and children

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The federal government will use DNA tests to quickly match up parents and children in immigration custody, CBS, Reuters, CNN and the BBC reported Thursday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that the DNA testing would help his agency meet the deadline for family reunification set by a federal court last week. That court, ruling in Ms. L v. ICE, required the government to reunite children under age 5 with their parents by Tuesday, July 10, and children 5 and older by July 26. The court also ordered that all parents must be in phone contact with their children by July 6.

There are more than 230 federal employees working on that, Azar said.

“HHS is continuing to work overtime to connect minors with verified parents within the constraints provided by the court,” he said to CBS.

Azar told reporters the agency has “under 3,000”—it wasn’t clear how far under—separated children, including about 100 who are under the age of 5. It generally uses birth records to match families, the BBC said. However, Azar said this would take too long to meet the court-ordered deadline.

According to Reuters, Azar said no families have yet been reunified, but the agency is still on track to meet the court deadline. However, Azar also said that his agency may ask the court for more time to vet the parents to ensure they’re safe guardians. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt questioned that assertion.

“When the government wants to marshal its resources to separate families, it has shown that it can do it quickly and efficiently, but when told to reunite families, it somehow finds it too difficult and cumbersome to accomplish,” he said to Reuters.

At least one immigrant rights group criticized the government for not having a better reunification plan.

“This further drives home the point we’ve been saying: They never registered parents and children properly,” said Jennifer K. Falcon, communications director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

RAICES said it had never heard of DNA testing being used to reunite families and is concerned that it could result in lifelong surveillance of the children. In fact, advocates were concerned about that before the announcement, as National Geographic and Scientific American reported in late June. For one thing, children cannot give informed consent, legally speaking, to the testing—and in this situation, any parental consent received could be construed as given under duress, experts told the magazines.

For another, the DNA would most likely go into a database, which means police with legal authorization could find it. And because any individual’s genetic information can bring up his or her immediate relatives, that could affect the privacy of the children’s families as well.

And it’s possible that some of the kids are stepchildren or otherwise not the biological children of the people who brought them to the United States. Dr. Ada Hamosh of Johns Hopkins University told National Geographic that 1 to 10 percent of prenatal genetic tests in the United States show that a test subject is not genetically related to the parent who raised him or her.

Attorneys who work with detained parents say some have been interviewed about birthmarks and biographical information that could identify their children. They also say clients have been given saliva or blood tests by federal doctors. Reuters reported July 5 that some parents are being moved to ICE detention centers closer to the HHS shelters where their children are being kept.

Families that are reunited may not be released from federal custody; the government asked in late June for a court’s permission to detain families as units. The same judge ruled against the practice in 2015.

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