US Officials Order DNA Tests to Reunite Migrant Families

The goal is to expedite the time it takes to bring families together, but immigration advocates say the tests raise concerns about how the government will use the data.

Jul 6, 2018
Ashley Yeager

In an effort to reunite nearly 3,000 migrant children with their parents, the US Department of Health and Human Services will be conducting DNA tests via a cheek swab, NBC News reported yesterday (July 5). 

The matches must be made by July 10 for children younger than five years and by July 26 for children ages 5–17, according to a federal judge in the Southern District of California. Traditional methods, such as reviewing birth certificates, to verify the parents of the children would take too long, according to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar. Jonathan White, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, tells NBC News the results of the DNA tests would not be used for anything other than to match children with their parents.

Immigration advocates aren’t convinced by the promise and are voicing concerns about what the government might do with the data once they are collected, such as tracking where immigrants are moving, according to BBC News. There are also concerns about how a child can consent to such a test.

“They’re essentially solving one civil rights issue with another—it’s a gross violation of human rights,” Jennifer Falcon, communications director for the immigrants rights group RAICES, tells NBC News in a separate story posted yesterday. “These are minors with no legal guardian to be able to [advise them] on their legal right, not to mention they’re so young how can they consent to their personal information being used in this way?”

The call for DNA tests also raises questions about whether the immigrants were properly processed when they were originally detained at the border. “When people are detained they are fingerprinted already so why do they need DNA swabs if these people went through the proper intake process when they were detained?” Falcon says.

Emergency physician Alicia Hart, who is treating children in detention centers, tells CNN that information on migrant children doesn’t exist. “Unfortunately, records haven’t been kept,” she says. “DNA’s probably going to be our only way of [identifying parents] and ensuring these kids get back to a safe home.”