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HHS Confirms DNA Testing of Migrant Families With Additional Details

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The US Department of Health and Human Services last week confirmed that it is DNA testing migrant families to help it meet court-mandated deadlines for reuniting children separated at the border from their parents.

An HHS spokesperson maintained that the government is only using DNA testing for the purpose of verifying parentage, but added without elaborating that HHS is not publicizing the contractor doing the testing "due to privacy and security." According to the spokesperson, HHS has not consulted with the lab contractor to get permission to publicize this information.

Last week, following press reports that HHS was DNA testing migrant families separated at the border as a result of the Trump Administration’s "zero tolerance policy," genetic ethicists and legal experts expressed concern about the government’s lack of transparency in terms of which lab was involved, the type of testing being performed, if the information would be used beyond family reunification purposes, and if the data were being saved in any kind of database.

Subsequently, HHS held a press conference and issued a statement that DNA testing was being done to "expedite verification of parentage" in light of a court order from Judge Dana Sabraw of Federal District Court in San Diego, requiring that the government reunite all children under age five with their parents by July 10 and older children by July 26.

HHS said in a statement that "a DNA test is done only when there is a specific parent-child relationship that needs to be validated. It will be used only for this purpose."

HHS further noted that its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) already uses DNA testing as a parentage verification tool in its Unaccompanied Alien Children program when proof cannot be provided with regular documentation — a scenario that may not be uncommon for refugees fleeing locales riddled with violence or ravaged by natural disasters.

According to an HHS spokesperson, organizations with grants from ORR to provide care to minors are collecting cheek swab samples from children, and Department of Homeland Security personnel or HHS-deployed field teams are collecting samples from the adults in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The samples are sent to an unnamed third party lab for analysis.

Although the government is not publicizing the lab doing testing, it has a number of options in this regard, including a commercial lab with AABB accreditation for kinship testing, a state lab, or one of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s accredited labs.

Once testing is done, the lab electronically transmits the results to the incident management team at the securities operations center, which share them with grantees, and the information is used for verifying parentage. After the parent/child relationship is verified, HHS has instructed the testing contractor to destroy the samples and the results, according to the spokesperson.

In a statement, HHS estimated it has more than 11,800 minors in its custody, 80 percent of whom are male teens who have crossed the border unaccompanied by an adult. An audit identified that fewer than 3,000 of these minors currently in ORR’s care could have been separated from a parent.

On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the "zero tolerance policy," stipulating that all who illegally cross the southwest border would be prosecuted for illegal entry, and as a result, when families are caught, children crossing with their parents are put in government custody as unaccompanied minors and the parents are sent to jail. Since this policy went into effect, the government estimates more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents. However, the court order requires the government to also reunite children separated from parents before the policy went into effect.

Meanwhile, the government has asked the court to extend the reunification deadline for the estimated 101 children under age five. According to reports, the government’s usual record-keeping system for tracking children and their parents has been a bureaucratic mess. Some of the parents of the youngest detained children have already been deported or released and their whereabouts are unknown, according to US Department of Justice lawyers cited in a report.

HHS indicated that before releasing detained children from its care, it needs to properly vet the adults claiming to be their parents and ensure they're telling the truth and don’t have criminal backgrounds. Although Trump Administration officials have indicated that child trafficking is a significant problem among those crossing the border illegally, experts GenomeWeb spoke to said while this does happen there aren’t good estimates of how big the problem is in the present situation.

"We are working with other federal agencies to perform background checks on purported parents," the HHS spokesperson said. According to HHS, while working to reunite children under age 5 with their parents, ICE criminal background checks identified two "purported parents" with criminal histories, "including charges of child cruelty, rape, and kidnapping."