By Evangeline M. Chan
May 4, 2019
The Trump administration just announced its plan to launch a pilot program utilizing rapid DNA testing to verify claimed family relationships at the southern border, despite the rarity of those cases. According to the administration, under the new program, officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that manages border enforcement, will refer cases of suspected fraud to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which manages interior enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of ICE.
Reportedly, the rapid DNA test will take about 90 minutes and the sample needed for the test will be obtained using a cheek swab from both the adult and child, with the parent swabbing the child. The samples will be destroyed and won’t be used as evidence in any criminal case, officials claim. Sounds like a responsible use of this powerful technology and for a legitimate purpose right? However, several concerns arise.
First, border officials currently determine a family unit to be a parent with a child. “Fraud” is considered where a person is claiming to be a parent when he or she is another type of relative, or if there is no relationship at all.
But family, as we know today, is as much a social construct as a biological one, and using biometric technology to define who is “family” will exclude many. Step-children adopted children and grandparents, for example, would be weeded out by DNA testing.
At Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project, a majority of our clients come from Central America. We often see parents coming to the United States first, leaving their children behind with relatives to care for them and sending for them later.
It is, therefore, not unusual for us to see children arriving in the United States accompanied by adults other than their parents. Children who have been abused, orphaned or abandoned, may also be informally adopted by distant relatives such as aunts or uncles — a common practice in Central American countries. After caring for a child as their own for years, is it surprising an aunt would call that child “son” rather than nephew? Is that fraud or family?
DNA testing could have other unintended consequences as well — for example, a father learning that he is actually not the biological father of a child. A child might find out they were the product of rape rather than fathered by the man they called dad since birth. Should the U.S. government cause such agony searching for a needle in a haystack?
Second, officials say that the testing is voluntary. But consent given under these conditions is questionable at best. Parents in detention have reported signing documents they did not fully comprehend because they felt pressured or were coerced into doing so. The voluntariness of the test also means that actual smugglers and traffickers can escape detection, merely by refusing to consent to the test.
In addition, what we know from our work assisting hundreds of trafficking victims that most traffickers do not attempt to bring their victims into the country by crossing the border illegally, presenting themselves to border officials and requesting asylum. Most trafficking victims enter the country legally at ports of entry but under false promises or pretexts, later to be subjected to labor and/or sex trafficking. Moreover, we occasionally have seen children trafficked by their own parents. DNA testing at the border would not prevent that.
Which raises the third concern — what happens to children and families after the test? Last summer, the federal government was required by court order and executive order to end forced family separations.
Despite this, reports have emerged that the practice continues at an alarming rate, under the guise of suspected fraud or the “safety of the child”. Worse yet is that the government still does not have an accurate and reliable system of tracking children after they have left government custody or for reuniting families that have been separated. This places vulnerable children at far greater risk of being trafficked.
Children in desperate situations — hungry, far from home and alone — are easily exploited by traffickers offering them food, shelter, and care for a grave price.
To be clear, human trafficking is a scourge and we must leverage every resource, including identification technology, to combat it and protect victims. But as described above, deploying DNA testing — in the context of its proposed use at the southern border—is not the answer.
What would be far more effective is a better system for tracking and accounting for every child once they are released into the interior so they are less likely to end up in the hands of traffickers or in trafficking situations.
Giving all individuals fleeing violence and abuse in their home countries a fair and meaningful chance to present themselves at the border and request protection under the law will also reduce the likelihood that individuals will resort to the underground to gain access into this country. And the humanitarian treatment, rather than re-traumatization, of already-traumatized children, will serve their best interests far more than fancy technology.