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DHS will begin 'pilot' next week to collect DNA from immigrant children, parents

As early as next week, the Department of Homeland Security will begin collecting DNA from children and parents as part of a "pilot program," to help identify and prosecute people posing as families, Homeland Security officials told reporters Wednesday, after a Border Patrol sector chief "let the cat out of the bag."

During a press call with reporters, three DHS officials said adults and children would be tested on a "case-by-case basis" by agents from Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement following referrals by U.S. Border Patrol agents. 

The agency said that it would begin sampling DNA to deal with what DHS officials called an increasing problem of "fraudulent families," who use "legal loopholes" to enter the country by presenting as families.

HSI agents will sample DNA using a cheek swab, and the sample will be checked by a machine that can quickly assess the genetic information. The machine, developed by ANDE, can evaluate DNA in about 90 minutes, and has been used by the FBI and other agencies since last June. 

Officials said that after the DNA is analyzed, the machine destroys the sample. 

DHS officials refused to disclose the locations that HSI will begin testing DNA, arguing that it doing so would affect "operational security." 

"We're not putting out locations on this to make sure we’re not changing the flow of people that we’re encountering," she said. The program will be done along the southwestern border, and will be "limited in scope and limited in time," she said.

"This is unprecedented move forward, and a new avenue that we can utilize in our investigations," said a separate DHS official. 

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Another DHS official said that from "HSI's standpoint," officials would review legal documentation, and that for people who are guardians or adopted parents, "they should have legal documentation to support that," she said. 

"Every case in unique, and we’ll take everything into account when we decide whether to pursue a prosecution or not," she said. 

The announcement that DHS would begin sampling DNA is just the latest move by the Trump administration to manage an influx of Central Americans, who have come to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum from violence and poverty in their home countries. 

From March to April, the number of people detained along the southwestern border soared, rising 35 percent, a shift driven largely by families with children, or children traveling without a parent or guardian. 

Nearly 65 percent of those taken into custody in March were either families, or children traveling unaccompanied. 

The exodus is primarily driven by people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who either present themselves to officials at U.S. ports, or increasingly, arrive at remote parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, including outside of Lukeville, Ariz., and immediately seek out a Border Patrol agent to make an asylum claim. 

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have complained that they are "overwhelmed." As reported by TucsonSentinel.com a month ago, Border Patrol has taken the unprecedented step of bypassing ICE and releasing families directly to nonprofit organizations in Tucson, Yuma and Phoenix.

Because of strict laws regarding the treatment of children in federal custody, DHS cannot hold migrant children in detention for more than 20 days, and BP policy requires the release of families within 72 hours. Following a background check, family members are released "on recognizance" to awaiting groups — often without food, water or even shoelaces.

'Cat out of the bag'

While officials demurred in describing which locations where it would begin testing, earlier this week, HSI announced that it had deployed six teams to the border as part of an effort to step up investigations into "fraudulent family units," including Yuma, and last week, the chief of the Yuma Sector, Anthony Porvaznik, said in a video that the Border Patrol has a "rapid DNA pilot program." 

Both Yuma and Tucson Sector officials referred all questions about the potential DNA program to officials in Washington D.C., however, a DHS official said that she thought that "Anthony let the cat out of the bag." 

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In Washington D.C., a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said on Monday that "CBP is always evaluating whether other tools, such as DNA testing, can further enhance efforts to protect children."  

"At this time, DNA testing has not been deployed to the field and no DNA has been collected," he said. He added that CBP agents have begun collecting "biometrics" on a "case-by-case basis" for children under 14 in custody that agents believe are victims of human trafficking. 

"As word spread that adults who cross the border with children would be released into the U.S., we have started to see children being used to further the illegal entry of unrelated adults," he said. "This also includes cases where agents suspect that an adult is fraudulently claiming to be the parent of a child. Agents may also collect biometrics if they suspect a juvenile may have committed a serious crime or is engaged in smuggling," he said. 

Biometrics include fingerprints, photographs, and iris scan, "if available" based on "articulable facts and observations of each case," he said. 

During the press call Wednesday, a DHS official said that since April 18, HSI teams evaluated 101 family units for "fraudulent claims," and of those 29 were believed to be fraudulent. DHS officials said that they presented 45 people for prosecution based on these investigations, and federal prosecutors had accepted 33 for further prosecutions. 

Earlier this week, ICE announced that it was sending those teams to the border, noting in a release that HSI was "stepping up investigations into fraudulent family units seeking illegal entry into the US," by sending six teams to separate parts of the border, including Yuma, Ariz. 

"Our highly-skilled teams are working to stop individuals, networks and organizations facilitating child smuggling and document fraud,” said Matthew Albence, the acting director for the agency. "ICE along with our partners at CBP, remain committed to protecting children by ensuring they are not used as pawns by individuals attempting to gain entry to the U.S. through fraud."

While people have falsely presented themselves as families to enter the U.S. as families in previous years, Chad Plantz, the acting deputy special agent in charge of HSI in Tucson, said that the influx of Central Americans this year has driven a shift in the use of false or altered documents.

"It's running the full spectrum," Plantz said, noting that people were using a range of documents, including false documents, altered documents, or documents with incorrect information to bolster their claims that they're related to children they're arriving with.

However, both CBP officials and HIS agents have been using "investigative techniques" including interviews, comparing stories, and reviewing documents from Central America to evaluate claims. The majority of documents appear to be from Central America and Plantz said that HSI agents are seeing false documents from "across the whole Northern Triangle" of Central America.

DHS officials have worried for months that some children are being "recycled," by smuggling organizations, where a child is brought with an adult, and once that adult and child are released into the interior of the country, the child is sent back to either Central America or Mexico to be brought into the country with a new adult.

Plantz said that Tucson officials have not encountered this kind of case in Arizona, but that HSI agents have "encountered them across the border."

"The whole scheme is based on people taking advantage of our immigration system, and the release of people into the interior of the country," Plantz said. Officials should begin looking to limit "loopholes" and look to end policies that "automatically release people into the United States," as well as add "other prosecution venues" for DHS officials to use.

"The real piece of this, and why HSI is so committed to this, is we're really trying to protect children here, and ensure they're really with their actual parents," he said.

From October through early March, officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency for Border Patrol, "confirmed" 1,000 cases of fraudulent families, said one of the officials during Wednesday's phone call. 

This involves more than 3,100 people, said Brian Hastings, the chief of the Border Patrol's law enforcement operations, during press call on the rising numbers of families being detained. 

On April 9, Hastings said that from April 2018 to March 25, 2019, Border Patrol agents had "identified over 3,100 individuals undergoing processing as family units that had made fraudulent claims." 

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"This includes—it’s important for me to note that this includes both individuals who claim to be children with the parent and were determined to be 18 or older, not less than 18, or those individuals who had did not have a true family relationship," Hastings said.  

During that time period, Border Patrol agents took into custody more than 584,067 people, including nearly 266,000 people identified as family units. However, it remains unclear how many children classified as "unaccompanied minors" were traveling unaccompanied, rather than traveling with adults and then separated by CBP officials. 

This means the total fraud rate, including families with children who are over 18, or who do not have a direct parent-child relationship, might be around 1.2 percent, based on an analysis of CBP data. 

"If we can prove this is a success that can save somebody, we're going to use it," a DHS official said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

In a remote part of Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a Border Patrol agent takes into custody two 18-year-old boys from Guatemala.

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