The Department of Homeland Security has stepped up its collection of biometric data from migrant families to include a DNA testing pilot program and the fingerprinting of children under the age of 14.
The Trump administration has said collecting such data is part of an effort to crackdown on child smuggling and migrants posing as fake families at the U.S. border following a recent increase of Central American asylum-seekers. But immigration and civil rights advocates said there are better ways to protect children from trafficking and raised concerns about consent and the government's handling of such sensitive data.
"This is yet another example of government using generalized security interests to conduct increasingly intrusive measures into the privacy and civil rights of individuals who are seeking asylum at the border," said Stephen Kang, a detention attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project.
DHS officials said in a news teleconference Wednesday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would begin a pilot program testing the DNA of suspected fraudulent families coming to the southern border with their consent. Based on the results of those tests, migrants may potentially be referred for prosecution.
Officials said the DNA testing would involve adults swabbing their own cheeks and then swabbing the cheek of their purported child. Once the test is complete, officials said the samples would be destroyed and not stored. Officials declined to name the location of the pilot program, but said it could start as soon as next week and would take place over several days.
That announcement followed reports that Border Patrol was expanding its collection of biometric data to include the fingerprinting of children under 14.
Customs and Border Protection said in a statement to NBC News that from Oct. 1 to March 30 "Border Patrol agents had identified over 2,700 individuals on the Southwest border who fraudulently claimed to be part of a family unit. This includes individuals who claimed to be a child traveling with a parent but were later determined to be 18 or over and individuals who did not have a family-unit relationship."
That number represents just over one percent of the family units apprehended at the border during the same period.
CBP said as a result Border Patrol has been using additional means to protect vulnerable children, in some cases by collecting "biometrics on a case-by-case basis if a child, who is under the age of 14 years old, is in custody, and appears to be a victim of human trafficking."
That included cases where agents suspected an adult was fraudulently claiming to be a child's parent or if they suspected the child may have committed a serious crime, CBP said. The authorized biometrics included "fingerprints, photographs and iris scans, if available, based on articulable facts and observations of each case," CBP said. The agency said it had not deployed its own DNA testing at this time but it "is always evaluating whether other tools, such as DNA testing, can further enhance efforts to protect children."
The Trump administration has repeatedly said it is seeing an increase in cases of fraudulent families. But advocates questioned how many of the cases of so-called "fake families" stemmed from children who were being trafficked versus cases of migrants who were families but did not fall under the umbrella of biological parents or legal guardians, as well as how many were migrants who turned out to be 18 or over but were in fact traveling with their parents.
Jennifer Podkul, senior director for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, said while "the effort to try to protect children is very important, what I'm concerned about is an unnecessary over-reliance on this technology."
Ursela Ojeda, policy advisor for migrant rights and justice at the Womens Refugee Commission, said she was "extremely concerned" about what the actual definition of a "false family unit" would be. She said migrant families fleeing violence in Central America may not fit the definition of a biological parent and child or legal guardian but may still be a legitimate family.
"In cases like that where the DNA would not necessarily match up, what's going to happen in those situations?" she said.
Podkul said instead of collecting biometric data with the goal of prosecutions, immigration authorities should focus on hiring licensed child welfare specialists and pediatric specialists who could provide care for children and handle the screening process.
Podkul said she and other advocates were concerned about how the Trump administration had been using "fraudulent families" as a "talking point" to "justify increased enforcement as opposed to increasing resources to ensure children are safe."
She added that children who are determined to be victims of human trafficking should be afforded resources and immigration relief under the form of T or U visas as victims of a crime.
When it comes to collecting fingerprints from children, Ojeda said the tactic raises the issue of whether or not children at that age could consent to having their biometrics taken and also raises the question of whether families will know exactly what they are consenting to.
It was also unclear "how this data is going to be used, for how long it going to be stored, who might it be shared with and for what purpose."
"These are a very particularly vulnerable population, we don't want to to unnecessarily have them in government databases, especially when it's unclear where it's to be shared," she said.
Daniella Silva is a reporter for NBC News, specializing in immigration and inclusion issues.