HHS using DNA testing in order to reunite migrant families 'faster'

HHS using DNA testing in order to reunite migrant families 'faster'

The Trump administration is conducting DNA tests to reunite children separated from their parents at the border.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said Thursday that the agency is using the "faster" and more accurate method in order to comply with a court order to reunite children aged 4 and under with families by July 10, and children aged 5 to 17 by July 26.

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The method will also ensure that children are not handed over to someone falsely claiming to be a parent, according to an HHS official on a press call with reporters.

Under normal circumstances, HHS would verify relationships using birth certificates or other documentation and use DNA testing as a backup.

"Because of the compressed time frame, the process of using documentation is not going to be completed within the time frame allowed by the court decision for the great majority of these children," said Jonathan White, deputy director for children’s programs at the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

"For this reason, the decision has been made to use the faster process of DNA verification to confirm that biological relationship."

Personnel with HHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security will collect cheek swabs from children and parents and send it to a lab where a DNA contractor will verify the relationship.

White said the information will be used “solely” for that purpose and no other.

Advocates for the migrant children and their families worry that information can be used for other purposes, like tracking them after their time in the U.S.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar could not give a specific number of how many children would be reunited with their families under the court order, but said it would be "less than 3,000."

“We will comply with the court’s deadline. We will do as much as possible up until the deadline set by the court to ensure these are the parents, and do background checks and otherwise confirm suitability,” he said.

Children have not been sent to ICE facilities where their parents or families have been held, but HHS “will do so as we approach the court deadline," he said.

Azar expressed frustration with the deadline, arguing that it was extreme and artificial. 

He said it means HHS will not be able to be as thorough as possible in determining the relationship between children and those claiming to be family. 

"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." 

He added that, to meet the court's deadline, HHS will have to "narrow" its focus from a "comprehensive review" of the safety and suitability of sponsors and parents to a more "expedited process."