Waltham company supplying DNA test kits to ICE

Used to verify whether families at border are biologically related

FEDERAL OFFICIALS ARE USING RAPID DNA testing kits produced by a Massachusetts biotechnology company to verify the family connections of immigrants at the US-Mexico border. 

The kits, developed by Waltham-based ANDE Corp., were tested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a three-day trial in May in El Paso, Texas, that was extended for several months in July at a total cost of $52,000. The kits are now being used at five more locations along the southwest border. 

Britney Walker, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said members of 84 families suspected of fraud were tested over the initial three-day period. The DNA tests indicated 16 of the families included children who were not related to their alleged parents. The spokeswoman said criminal charges are being filed against the adults related to identity fraud, alien smuggling, human trafficking, and child exploitation. 

Rapid DNA testing requires getting a cheek swab from the parent and child in question to determine if the individuals are close biological relatives. The test provides results in 90 minutes, much faster than regular DNA tests which often take weeks to process. 

Walker said the FBI-approved tests are being used in the event ICE or DHS agents cannot verify a family unit’s relationship through paperwork brought across the border. She said individuals being tested are required to provide their consent, although she noted their refusal would be noted in immigration documents used for removal purposes. 

ANDE Corp. declined to comment. The company’s website bills its technology as a “vital tool in a government’s immigration policies, from identifying familial relationships to reducing the trafficking of children to identifying suspects crossing borders illegally.” It is currently the sole supplier of the rapid tests to ICE.  

Grace Mengacting deputy director for the advocacy organization Human Rights Watch, said DNA testing is not the best way to deal with immigration fraud. She said sometimes a child’s primary caregiver is not the parent, but a negative DNA test could nevertheless result in separation. 

“DNA testing is an incredibly overbroad approach to protecting children when there are more child-centered approaches that can be taken, such as having child welfare professionals evaluating children who seem to be at risk,” Meng said. Family is not necessarily defined by DNA, and DNA testing will result in additional families being separated and traumatized.” 

The ANDE contract for rapid DNA testing was included in a database of ICE contracts first compiled by Sludge, a publication focused on lobbying and money in politics.  

Companies are coming under fire for just doing business with federal immigration agencies. In June, thousands of people protested a $200,000 contract between furniture manufacturer Wayfair and US Customs and Border Protection for beds being provided to a detention center in Texas, with protesters calling the company complicit with human rights violations.   

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

More than a thousand companies have received over $3.3 billion from ICE in exchange for services since early 2017.

Other Massachusetts-based companies who have had contracts with ICE over the past few years include Northeastern University, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, and Bedford-based Aware Inc., which focuses on fingerprint and facial recognition technology.