The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said Thursday that the agency would be using DNA testing as a "faster" and more reliable method of reuniting separated migrant children with their parents, reports CNN.
"The safety and security is paramount and that it is not uncommon for children to be trafficked or smuggled by those claiming to be parents. To our knowledge this is a cheek swab and is being done to expedite parental verification and ensuring reunification with verified parents due to child welfare concerns," a federal official told the network - who would not say how long the DNA sampling has been taking place, whether the testing requires consent, or whether the samples are being stored in a database.
The expedited identification method has been employed in order to comply with a court order instructing the Trump administration to reunite separated children under 4 with their families by July 10, while children aged 5-17 must be reunited by July 26. The DNA testing will also ensure that children are not being handed over to someone falsely claiming to be a parent or relative, such as a human trafficker.
HHS secretary Alex Azar told reporters on Thursday that slightly fewer than 3,000 children have been separated from their parents - around 1,000 more than earlier reports by the agency of 2,047.
“We have to confirm that these are in fact their parents and we have to confirm they’re appropriate people to be having custody of these children,” Azar said in an appearance on Fox News Thursday. “We’re doing DNA testing on everybody who claims to be a parent of one of our children to confirm that.”
Azar also expressed frustration at the court-ordered deadline, arguing that it was extreme and artficial - and that HHS won't be able to be as thorough as possible in determining family relationships in just days and weeks.
"That deadline was not informed by the process needed to vet parents, including confirming parentage as well as determining the suitability of placement with that parent," Azar said.
"We will comply even if those deadlines prevent us from conducting our standard, or even a truncated, vetting process."
Two weeks ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with members of Congress about using DNA testing, said Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council.
“Sessions is talking to congressional members and is hoping for a legislative fix,” Perkins said, adding that the DOJ would like to see “just, fair and enforceable” immigration policies. To that end, “They are looking at how to use DNA tests in the field to verify they are parents and not traffickers," according to Perkins.
Sessions told Perkins “We know for a fact that a lot of adults taking children along are not related to them. [They] could be smugglers. They could be human traffickers. It’s a very unhealthy dangerous thing and it needs to end. We need to return to a good lawful system,” Sessions told Perkins on his broadcast.
UK authorities, meanwhile, has admitted that officials "wrongly forced immigrants to take DNA tests in order to settle their UK status," after previously saying that the identification method was "entirely voluntary," according to the Independent.
The accusation against the Home Office comes a month after Caroline Nokes, the immigration minister, said in answer to a parliamentary question that any DNA was submitted on an “entirely voluntary basis”.
In one case, a letter was sent by the Home Office to an applicant’s solicitor stating that it was “imperative” they submit DNA evidence to confirm the paternity of their client’s child. This was despite the fact that the child already had a British passport.
The letter, seen by The Independent, stated: “In order to progress your client’s case it is imperative that your client submits the DNA evidence requested to confirm the paternity of your client’s child" -Independent
“In the absence of such evidence the secretary of state for the home department is unable to provide you with a specific timeframe to conclude this claim.”
The asylum seeker's attorney, Enny Choudhury, from the Joint Coincil for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) excoriated Noakes over her comments.
“The Home Office already accepted my client’s child was British when it issued him a passport. Asking for DNA tests on top of that is an unlawful frustration of her application, delaying a decision by over two years, and all too typical of Home Office practices,” said Choudhury.
In another example, a family of Vietnamese origin in Dover said that last year the Home Office demanded their children undergo a DNA test even though the UK consulate in Hanoi accepted that their father was a UK citizen when he registered their births in 2004, according to the Financial Times.
Meanwhile back in the USA...
DNA testing at the border has already sparked concerns from immigration advocacy groups.
Jennifer K. Falcon, communications director for RAICES, a nonprofit in Texas that offers free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, called the move deplorable because collecting such sensitive data would allow the government to conduct surveillance on the children "for the rest of their lives." -CNN.
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