Migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border with children will be asked to submit to a voluntary DNA test in order to prove they are related, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), officials said Wednesday.
The officials said the pilot program could be set up as soon as next week, but did not specify at which locations the tests would take place so as "not to change the flow of people" approaching the southern border.
Individuals who consent to the DNA test will be asked to swab their cheeks and those of the children with them before presenting the evidence to officials from DHS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The DHS officials said the testing would take an average of two hours to complete, after which the genetic data is to be destroyed and won't be used as evidence in any criminal case.
Information from the tests will be used to investigate individuals suspected of human trafficking, identity theft and other crimes. The officials added that someone claiming to be a child's legal guardian will have to provide supporting documentation.
"This pilot is by no means a silver bullet for these investigations," a DHS official said Wednesday. "Trained professionals will continue to rely on a myriad of data inputs and their experience to determine whether a group presenting as a family unit is a fraud based on law enforcement observations, documentary evidence or other intelligence."
Last month, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the Border Patrol had identified more than 3,100 parents and children accused of making "fraudulent claims" between April 2018 and March of this year. That number coincides with a surge of border crossings by family units.
The Border Patrol says it made about 66,000 apprehensions of people crossing the border illegally in February, including 36,000 parents and children, a monthly high. ICE officials said that since Dec. 21 it had released 107,000 family members while they await court dates. The agency also says it has identified 101 possible instances of fraudulent families since April 18 and determined one-third were fraudulent
The fiscal year ending Oct. 1, 2018, saw more than 107,000 family units apprehended at the southwestern border, a 42 percent increase from the previous year, when more than 75,000 were apprehended. Since Oct. 1, ICE says it has uncovered more than 1,000 cases of fraudulent families and referred 45 cases for prosecution. The fraud could also include the use of false birth certificates or documents, and adults accused of fraud aren't necessarily prosecuted for it; some are prosecuted for illegal entry or other crimes.
Homeland Security officials have also warned of "child recycling," cases where they say children allowed into the U.S. were smuggled back into Central America to be paired up again with other adults in fake families — something they say is impossible to catch without fingerprints or other biometric data.
But the department hasn't identified anyone arrested in such a scheme or released data on how many such schemes have been uncovered. Advocates say they're worried that in the name of stopping fraud, agents might take personal information from children that could be used against them later.
Fox News' Kristin Brown and The Associated Press contributed to this report.