July 5 (UPI) -- Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday said his department is using DNA testing to quickly comply with a court deadline to reunite some 3,000 migrant children separated from their parents.
He told reporters hundreds of government employees were using DNA and other information to verify guardianship before reuniting the children with parents being held in detention. A federal judge said HHS must reunite parents with children younger than 5 by Tuesday, and children between 5 and 17 by July 26.
Azar described the court order as "extreme" and said the department won't be able to use its usual methods for parental verification -- like checking birth certificates -- to meet the deadlines because those processes take longer.
"We will comply even if those deadlines prevent us from conducting a standard or even a truncated vetting process," he said.
In mid-June, the Department of Homeland Security said it separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents in April and May after the Department of Justice announced a "zero-tolerance" policy to prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally.
"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in early May.
The new policy faced backlash from immigrant advocates and lawmakers from the Democratic and Republican parties, and on June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the practice of separating families. The order, though, didn't address how or when already-separated families would be reunited.
Azar said HHS is now tasked with reuniting nearly 3,000 children with their parents because the court deadline includes children separated before the zero-tolerance policy went into effect.
Commander Jonathan White, assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS, said officials will take DNA samples using cheek swabs and the data would only be used to reunify families. Once reunited, the families likely would be held together by DHS to await asylum interviews or deportation.
"We want this to be as compassionate a process as it humanly can be," Azar said.
Jennifer Falcon, communication director for RAICES, a non-profit organization in Texas that gives legal assistance to immigrants, said the administration's decision to use DNA testing in the reunification process is proof officials didn't properly register adults and their children at the time of separation.
"Further proof the administration has no idea how to reunited families and was collecting intakes incorrectly," she said on Twitter.
She also questioned how babies and other young children can consent to a DNA cheek swab.