WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security is considering next steps in DNA testing on the southern border, following a pilot program that concluded last week.
DHS ran the DNA pilot program to help identify and prosecute individuals posing as families in an effort to target human smuggling. The Rapid DNA testing, as it’s known, involves a cheek swab and can, on average, provide results in about 90 minutes.
“We’re continuing to analyze the results of the DNA, analyze where we think it’d be appropriate in the processing line,” said Alysa Erichs, acting executive associate director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.
ICE has briefed acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan on the DNA testing, Erichs said.
Before the DNA pilot program, ICE Homeland Security Investigations personnel had been deployed to the border in April to investigate human smuggling and the use of fraudulent documents to “create fake families.” There are now 130 Homeland Security Investigations personnel at the border.
As of Friday, Homeland Security Investigations teams, which consist of agents and specialists, had interviewed 562 families who presented some indication of fraud. Homeland Security Investigations identified 95 fraudulent families through interviews and 176 fraudulent families through fake documents.
The administration has argued that the limit on how long migrant children can be held in detention is a pull factor because it guarantees release, prompting some individuals to pose as families.
The prospect of an interview or, more recently, a DNA test has led some migrants posing as families to concede that they are not related, Erichs said. In cases where migrants have conceded that they have no familial connection, ICE has referred the adults for criminal prosecution and turned over the minors to the care of the Health and Human Services Department.
Earlier this month, Border Patrol agents apprehended a Honduran man crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico into Texas with a 6-month-old baby, according to a complaint in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Homeland Security Investigations interviewed the man, Amilcar Guiza-Reyes, after finding that he was using fraudulent documents, the complaint says, and he conceded that the child was not his. The use of infants to pass as a family is uncommon, Erichs said, noting that the children are usually in their early to mid-teens.
While the results of the Rapid DNA testing pilot program are still being reviewed, Erichs said some fake families had been identified and others were determined to have familial connections. It’s not yet clear how many families were determined to be fake and how many were real.
DHS — faced with an influx of migrants, many of whom are families, at the southern border — has sounded the alarm over an uptick in migrants presenting as families.
According to the department, 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,” then-Homeland Secretary Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a speech in March. She also said DHS had uncovered “child recycling rings,” in which children were used repeatedly in an attempt to be released in the US.
The sharp rise in family apprehensions, in particular, has overwhelmed the department. Since December 21, ICE has released more than 177,000 families into the United States, according to the agency.
Amid the swell of migrants, ICE is weighing how DNA testing will be used, if at all.
“For all the purposes to protect the children, that’s where our mindset is on this,” Erichs said, referring to the DNA testing, “that we should continue to look at where it could or would be deployed and utilized. I can’t see of an instance to say where it was a failure.”