DALLAS—U.S. government officials recently told four immigrant women that they must pay for DNA tests in order to be reunited with their children, according to the shelter that housed the women.
The tests are the latest ad hoc effort by the Trump administration to reunite families it had separated—in some cases because authorities took documents from adults proving they are related to their children. The tests are being administered by a private contractor on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the care and housing of children. HHS has refused to name the contractor, which may be a violation of federal law.
“None of them have the money [for the tests], so it’s going to fall back on us to push back on that,” said Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter in El Paso where the women are staying.
Three of the women are mothers of the children, Garcia said, and the fourth is attempting to reunite with her brother, a three and half-year-old boy.
Garcia said that the tests likely cost money that many immigrants entering the country with little more than the clothes on their backs don’t have. Iliana Holguin, an immigration attorney in El Paso who works with Annunciation House, said the government made some of her clients pay between $700 to $800 to prove their relationship to a relative as part of their citizenship cases.
“The government wants the parents to foot the bill for the DNA testing when they’re the ones that caused the need for DNA testing,” Holguin said. “It’s incredible.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, responsible for the DNA testing, told The Daily Beast it “provides DNA testing at no cost to verify parentage.”
ORR requires DNA testing in some cases to verify adult immigrants are related to children in ORR’s custody, before the children can be released to the adults who have either been paroled or are to be deported. The tests are often required, according Garcia, when parents’ have had their paperwork regarding their children taken by Customs and Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (CBP and ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
“When these families come in, Customs and Border Protection takes away the documents from parents and puts them in their file,” Garcia said. “In the cases where they’ve been separated from their children, ORR then says, ‘You’re going to need to provide the documents that CBP took.’”
And when the immigrants can’t, Garcia said, ORR tells parents they must take a DNA test.
It’s unclear how many immigrants have been told they’d have to pay for DNA tests. Other immigration attorneys reached by The Daily Beast said their clients had not been asked to pay for DNA tests.
Greg Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association called the tests a “delay tactic” by a government that is “primarily interested in detaining the children and parents to put pressure on them to accept deportation before they have the opportunity to get a fair hearing on their asylum claims and other claims for relief.”
“In a specific case when there’s evidence of fraud DNA testing may be warranted, but it should not be done across the board especially when proof of familial relationship can be demonstrated in other ways,” Chen said.
Those other ways include the government documents that are taken from immigrants once they’re caught for crossing the border, verification that a simple phone call from ORR to CBP or ICE could achieve, Garcia said.
“But when I go to ORR, they say, ‘We don’t talk to immigration [authorities],” he said.
HHS has refused to reveal the identity of the contractor who is performing the DNA tests. A search of federal contract databases showed no recent contracts for DNA work with the HHS office which oversees ORR.
“DNA contract information is not available in a readily reportable format,” HHS' Administration of Children and Families office told The Daily Beast in a statement. A day earlier, that same office said on its website it had “not consulted with the contractor” to get permission to release the contract.”
Under federal law, government agencies have 30 days from the date of award to release certain basic contract information to a federal database online.
“Agencies don't need permission from contractors to publicize info on the contract. This is the public's business and taxpayers dollars are being used,” Nick Schwellenbach of the Project on Government Oversight told The Daily Beast. “Agencies often make this information available immediately.”
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union and the government agreed in a court filing on Monday “the federal government will not use the DNA samples or test results for any purpose besides verifying parentage, and will ensure that the DNA samples and test results are destroyed afterwards.” In a posting on its website, HHS pledged to destroy DNA swabs and test results after parental relationships had been confirmed.
The Trump administration isn’t the first to use DNA tests to verify relationships between immigrants or refugees. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security and State Department initiated a DNA testing pilot program for refugees from certain African countries in the “Priority Three” program that reunited refugees already inside the U.S. with relatives still abroad. Reports of widespread fraud in the Priority Three program (preliminary testing showed only 20 percent of tested immigrants had a biological relationship with claimed relatives abroad) prompted the closure of the program in 2008 before it was reopened in 2012.
A 2010 public notice warned that applicants to the Priority Three program would be responsible for the cost of DNA testing, but “successful applicants may be eligible for reimbursement of DNA test costs.”
Garcia said he has heard that test fees can be waived, but has yet to hear specifically from ORR how to apply for those waivers.
“I don’t know if it’s a situation where if you don’t ask about the waivers they don’t tell you,” he said.
DNA tests continued in 2014, when a wave of unaccompanied children began fleeing from gang violence in Central and South America and arriving at the southern border. Then, the Obama administration instituted another initiative similar to Priority Three called the Central American Minors (CAM) program. Many refugee children arrived looking to reunite with parents or relatives already inside the U.S. The CAM program sought to provide a safer alternative to the often dangerous journey unaccompanied children took through Central America and to the border by allowing family members to apply for reunification legally.
The program required DNA testing to prove a biological relationship with migrant children. As an HHS fact sheet noted, parents inside the U.S. would pay for the cost of testing up front and would “be reimbursed for testing costs ONLY if ALL claimed and tested biological relationships are confirmed by DNA test results.”
The Trump administration ended the program in 2017.
For now, the tests being performed on immigrants caught up in Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy are just another obstacle for mothers and fathers who have already faced plenty of them in order to be reunited with their children, Garcia said.
“Here’s what I want from ORR: it’s my understanding that DNA test results can be quick or slow, depending on whichever you want. So why don’t you take the responsibility, ORR, and get this done quickly and get these kids back with their parents. Don’t give me this, ‘There’s too many to do and it’s going to take a while,’ or ‘There’s a big long line,’ because you’re the one who took the kids away in the first place, so fix it.”