The Department of Homeland Security will start a DNA testing pilot program next week to help identify and prosecute individuals posing as families in an effort to target human smuggling, two department officials confirmed to CNN.
The Rapid DNA testing, as it’s known, involves a cheek swab and can, on average, provide results in about 90 minutes, a senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said.
The pilot program will run for two to three days in two border locations.
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It’s the latest move by the Trump administration to address the swell of migrants, predominantly families and children from Central American countries, at the border using a wide variety of technology and increased resources to fight illegal immigration.
DHS has repeatedly warned that children are being exploited by traffickers to skirt the nation’s immigration laws. Currently, the government can’t hold migrant children in detention for more than 20 days, often leading to the release of families – or groups posing as families – until their immigration court hearing, a practice President Donald Trump has derided as “catch and release.”
The information collected in the DNA test will not be stored or shared, the ICE official said.
“This is part of a larger investigative process. This is not screenings, this is not just random application of this, this is a pilot designed to assess the usefulness of this technology in an investigative process,” said ICE acting Deputy Director Derek Benner, calling it “new ground” for the department.
“An individual consenting to DNA testing will be instructed to swab his or her own cheeks, while being observed by agents and qualified technicians supplied by the vendor,” a DHS official told reporters Wednesday, adding that the adult will then be instructed to swab the cheeks of his or her claimed child.
Rapid DNA company ANDE will be the vendor, the official added.
According to DHS, there was a 315% increase “in the number of cases of adults with minors fraudulently posing as ‘family units’ to gain entry” from October 2017 to February 2018.
“Cases of ‘fake families’ are popping up everywhere. And children are being used as pawns,” former Homeland Secretary Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a speech last month. She also said DHS had uncovered “child recycling rings,” a process of using children repeatedly in an attempt to released in the US.
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Both ICE and Customs and Border Protection – two agencies within DHS that handle the processing of migrants – will be involved in the pilot. CBP will make a referral for investigation and ICE Homeland Security Investigations will take it from there, the senior official said.
National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd said he supports the use of DNA testing as a means of preventing child abuse.
“Rapid DNA is really the only way that we are going to positively be able to identify these children. Even if the cost is great, in order to protect these children, I think the cost is well worth it,” he said.
On Monday, ICE announced that it’s shifting additional resources and personnel to the southern border, this time from its Homeland Security Investigations office to investigate human smuggling and the use of fraudulent documents “to create fake families.”
The DNA testing is intended as a tool for these investigators, said the ICE official.
In April, DHS sent teams with experience in detecting smuggling and trafficking – including document analysts and victim assistance specialists – to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Since April 18, special agents interviewed 101 families who were referred for suspected fraud, and, of those, investigators identified 29 fraudulent families, according to a DHS official. Additionally, the agency referred 45 cases for prosecution, 33 of which were accepted.
Since the start of the fiscal year, DHS has investigated and confirmed over 1,000 “fraudulent claims,” said another DHS official, who added that it is an “escalating trend that we’re seeing.”
“We’re going to learn a lot from these (Homeland Security Investigations) teams that have deployed to El Paso and Rio Grande Valley,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said during a House hearing Tuesday. “They’re bringing forensic interviewers, they’re bringing biometric capability to try ensure that we establish those family relationships with clarity.”
CNN exclusively reported last week that US Border Patrol began fingerprinting some migrant children 14 and younger because of increased concern about fraud and the trafficking of children. Prior to the new guidance, Border Patrol occasionally took photos of children, and collected additional information, but did not fingerprint migrants under 14, according to a senior Border Patrol official.
Border apprehensions have continued to increase. It’s not only the uptick in illegal border crossings that’s raised issues for DHS, however; it’s also the shift in population – from single men to families and children predominantly from Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations has also temporarily shifted approximately 330 deportation officers to areas at or near the border or to areas within the US most impacted by surge of migrants at the border.
In March, there were more than 92,000 arrests of undocumented migrants for illegal entry on the southern border, up from 37,390 in March 2018 – the majority of whom were families, according to data from CBP.
This story has been updated.