Thousands of Kids Still Separated From Families as Deadline Looms

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said Thursday that several thousand children who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border remain in federal custody.

Last week a federal judge issued an order to the Trump Administration saying they had just two weeks to reunite the separated families. With that deadline looming HHS is now reportedly doing DNA tests as they attempt to verify family relationships between the children and the adults claiming to be their parents or other relatives.

Azar held a conference call on Thursday during which he said that approximately 3,000 children are being detained in facilities managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) which is part of HHS.

He said there are a total of nearly 12,000 children being held in ORR facilities but that only a small number are under the age of five.

Most of the children in custody arrived at the U.S. border by themselves with no adult parent of guardian accompanying them. Most of them had traveled thousands of miles from their homes in Central America to escape violence there and to seek asylum in the United States.

To comply with the court-imposed deadline of next Tuesday for reuniting small children, Azar said that the his agency is now performing DNA tests to “confirm parentage quickly and accurately.” His comments about DNA tests came after CNN reported that they were doing DNA tests on families in federal custody, which immediately was challenged by immigrant advocates and lawyers working with migrant families as a violation of their rights.

Anyone who wants custody of an unaccompanied minor in ORR care must submit an application, pass a background check, provide documents to prove their identity, and provide proof of residence and financial viability. But on Thursday Azar said that HHS has had to “adapt” existing processes in order to meet “new demands and circumstances.” The DNA tests are primarily being conducted via cheek swabs, HHS officials said.

The use of DNA tests has evoked outrage from lawyers and advocates, who say the government now can use the data they collect from the DNA tests to track migrant families.

Jennifer Falcon, the communications director for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, called it the “grossest violation of human rights” and said “the children in ORR custody are too young to consent this kind of collection of their personal data.”

“It’s deplorable they are using the guise of reuniting children to collect even more sensitive data about very young children,” Falcon said. “This would allow the government to conduct surveillance on these children for the rest of their lives.”

Sophia Gregg, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said that it is  “extremely intrusive” to take people’s DNA. She said the need for DNA data collection is evidence that the government is not able to reunite families after they’d been separated.

“It’s very concerning from an advocate’s perspective that there needs to be DNA testing because of a problem that they created themselves,” Gregg said. “The fact that the U.S. government lost track of which child goes with which parent shows you the lack of competence that they have about this issue.”