A Honduran child and her mother, fleeing poverty and violence in their home country, waits along the border bridge after being denied entry from Mexico into the U.S. on June 25, 2018 in Brownsville, Texas
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty)

The Department of Homeland Security is launching a DNA testing pilot on the southern border next week to identify and prosecute people posing as families. The program is intended to limit human smuggling, according to reports from CNN and BuzzFeed.

As CNN first reported, the pilot program will take place in two border locations and will run for two to three days. A senior Immigrations and Customs Enforcement official told the news outlet the Rapid DNA Testing will involve a cheek swab. Results, on average, will be returned in 90 minutes. U.S. Customs and Border protection would then refer any adults they determine are posing as families to ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, which has prosecuting power.

The official claimed that data from the DNA tests will not be stored or shared by DHS or any other other federal agency, the ICE official told CNN.

Sure. Who wouldn’t believe the federal government when it comes to privacy issues? Particularly when it comes to monitoring religious, racial, and ethnic minorities in this country?

For perspective, let’s consider what spurred the program. Surely, for the federal government to launch a DNA testing program on the border, the rate of people posing as families to seek asylum must be substantial.

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Well, you thought. By ICE’s own numbers, only one percent of the family groups apprehended at the southern border last year were identified as fraudulent:

In the last year, immigration officials said they’ve identified about 3,100 people who lied about being part of a family or claimed someone who was over 18 years old was a child. That number represents 1% of the 256,821 family units apprehended at the southern border during that same period.

If the goal is to cut down on human trafficking, as Donald Trump and other government officials have tried to frame it, it’s worth considering that the majority of human trafficking victims in the U.S. are actually born here.

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From the Los Angeles Times:

Of the callers into Polaris’ national hotline whose nationalities are known — about 14,000 — the breakdown from 2015 to mid-2018 is a near equal distribution between U.S. citizens/legal permanent residents and foreign nationals, said spokesman Brandon Bouchard.


Of the foreigners, those from Mexico topped the list with more than 1,500, followed by the Philippines, Guatemala, China and Honduras.

The Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative, described as a global data hub on human trafficking, drills down similar findings by state. For instance, in California, 61% of the victims in the data set are U.S.-born, 8% Mexican and 7% Chinese.

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But the issue at play isn’t about whether human trafficking and smuggling are worth addressing and enforcing. It’s whether Americans ought to trust a government whose chief official routinely lies about immigrants and immigration.

BuzzFeed, quoting Trump, included this delightful foray into falsehoods:

“The problem is you have ten times more people coming up with their families,” Trump said, talking about an increase of migrants at the southern border. “It’s like Disneyland now. You know, before you’d get separated so people would say let’s not go up. Now you don’t get separated, so it turned out to be a disincentive.”

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The statement is false on all counts. As of late last year, families were still being separated at the border. And while apprehensions have spiked at the U.S/Mexico border in the last year, these numbers are still well below historic lows. As far as separations acting as “disincentives” for people seeking asylum, the evidence is murky at best. The Center for American Progress found that both family detention (an Obama-era policy) and family separation did not effectively deter migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. The Washington Post cited some research showing that such hardline policies can drive down asylum applications over time, but noted other data showing these policies come at an enormous cost to governments, and doesn’t seem to deter border crossings.

But sure, let’s throw DNA testing into the mix. What could possibly go wrong?