CBP, DHS Using Quasi-Scientific Guesswork To Turn Adult Immigrants Into Minors

from the and-vice-versa dept

Our nation’s immigration agencies wield a considerable amount of power. So much power, in fact, that they’re free to dump incoming immigrants off the space-time continuum at will. If a CBP officer decides a person isn’t the age they say they are, they can alter the person’s age so it matches the officer’s beliefs.

How does the CBP accomplish this neat little trick? Well, oddly, it involves X-rays. A recent episode of This American Life details the surreal nature of this CBP-induced time warp — one it inflicted (repeatedly!) on a 19-year-old Hmong woman coming to the United States to reunite with her fiance.

Yong Xiong was questioned by Customs officers at the Chicago airport. The CBP officer thought she was being trafficked and didn’t believe the birth date on her passport. After a round of questioning meant to determine whether or not Yong was being trafficked, the CBP officer arrived at the conclusion she was, despite the officer marking “No” on ten of the eleven trafficking indicators.

So, how does the CBP try to determine someone’s age when officers don’t believe the person or the documents in front of them? They call in a dentist. Yong’s teeth were x-rayed to determine her age. This may involve science on the front end, but the back end is mainly educated guesswork.

From This American Life’s Nadia Reiman:

The dentist took the X-ray. No one would talk to me on the record about this, but because it’s the government, there is a massive paper trail. And not just in Yong’s case. I’m going to go deep on these tooth X-rays for a second, so bear with me. They’re used in all kinds of immigration cases, not just trafficking. And a lot rides on the results. If you’re under 18, you have more protections. You get put into a shelter instead of a detention center. It’s harder to get deported.

But tooth X-rays are just not a very precise way to determine someone’s age. The way it works is they measure how developed the roots of your molars are, and then based on that, the dentist can determine your age, but only within a range, usually around five years. So these X-rays can’t tell you the difference between a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old. The same teeth might belong to a 15-year-old or a 20-year-old.

In Yong’s case, the CBP was sure she was being trafficked. Since the officer already thought that, the CBP leaned toward the lower end of the dentist’s estimate.

In the documents, the dentist writes, quote, “The range of possible ages is 14.76 to 19.56 years.” In other words, it’s totally plausible that Yong could be 19 as she’s been saying.

Instead of accepting this as evidence that might back the birth date on Yong’s passport, the CBP agent gave her a new birth date: January 1, 2000. This instantly turned Yong into a minor and the CBP placed her in a juvenile shelter. She continued to tell staff and counselors she was 19 and needed to head to Minneapolis to meet with her family and fiance. The staff told her they couldn’t do anything about this because the paperwork said she’s a minor.

This isn’t true. They are able to make changes to these dates, but no one at this detention center was willing to do that. Well… they weren’t willing to change her birth date to make her an adult again. Instead, as Yong approached her fake 18th birthday — January 1, 2018 — the DHS decided to make her even younger:

It turns out ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] resubmitted the X-rays of Yong’s teeth to a second dentist who concluded Yong could be anywhere between 15 and 20 years old. After which, ORR did change her birth date. But they used the lowest end of the range possible. The documents say DHS, the agency that oversees everything related to immigration, told them to. Her new, new birth date is now September 1, 2002.

A wrist X-ray was performed to determine “bone age.” The results said Yong was most likely 18. The doctor interpreting them for the DHS decided this simply wasn’t true and issued a conclusion saying Yong is 15, but with “advanced bone age.”

After 14 months in a juvenile detention center, Yong is finally released by the DHS… as a minor, into the custody of her aunt. A couple of weeks later, the DHS stated to her lawyer it would no longer “contest” the “contents” of her passport. The single contested “content” was Yong’s true birth date. The US government graciously allowed Yong to become 22 again, after 14 months of treating her like a teenager.

Yong is not an isolated case. The DHS routinely uses wide-ranging estimates to arbitrarily assign birth dates to immigrants and asylum seekers. For whatever reason, CBP tends to add years to males and subtract them from females. This results in people like Yong being treated as minors for months or years. In other cases, it turns unaccompanied minors into adults and places them in adult detention facilities.

This report from The Conversation detailing the x-ray “aging” of two unaccompanied teens says CBP’s reliance on this process is illegal.

Federal law dictates that X-rays in cases where adult age is not obvious be used only in concert with other methods, such as verification of documentation and interviews. This makes sense because X-rays only provide orienting information rather than a definitive answer.

The recent court cases demonstrate that ICE has broken the law by exclusively relying on X-rays for age determination, ruling that the teens be released back into ORR’s custody as minors. Are these cases isolated or illustrative of a bigger problem? A 2008 report by the Office of Homeland Security found that it was not only unclear how often ICE needed to resort to X-rays to assist with age determination, but unknown how common it was for them to rely solely on X-ray results. Without accurate numbers, there is no way to know how widespread the practice is or how to improve the process.

Nothing has improved since then. And part of the reason nothing has improved is that the same Congress that expressed concern about the DHS’s reliance on X-rays to determine immigrants’ ages pushed the DHS to continue to rely on the X-rays.

In 2007 and again in 2008, the House Appropriations Committee called on the Department of Homeland Security to stop relying on forensic testing of bones and teeth. But it was the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 that declared age determinations should take into account “multiple forms of evidence, including the non-exclusive use of radiographs.”

Apparently, the “non-exclusive” part of the law is being ignored. Nothing but an X-ray and a CBP officer’s hunch turned 19-year-old Yong Xiong into a 17-year-old. And nothing but an X-ray made her even younger… even as she aged 14 months right in front of the government’s eyes.

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Comments on “CBP, DHS Using Quasi-Scientific Guesswork To Turn Adult Immigrants Into Minors”

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bob says:

is this the same CBP?

why would they ever want to make people become minors? I can only believe it was because of the trafficking suspicion, or to harass someone the agent didn’t like?

For an agency that’s known for wanting to deport all immigrants I can’t see them regularly trying to make anyone appear as a minor. It would end up costing the government more to house someone than send them on their way.

Something’s odd here.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: is this the same CBP?

Read PaulT’s commentary above. You age up males to convert them into criminals to boost immigration crime stats. You reduce the age of women to make the accusation of trafficking land easier, which then boosts immigration crime stats.

And your naive claims that the government doesn’t want to spend more money housing people – have you followed the border detention crisis at all? The Obama Administration faced with similar circumstances and the then new court rulings about child detention implemented a far cheaper case management system that succeeded at ensuring a 97+% court date appearance rate. The Trump Administration threw that out for more detention. The Trump administration has refused to spend money on ways to clear the backlog of asylum detainees, like more judges and admin officials instead insisting on a wall a distance inland which wont stop people from crossing and requesting asylum continuing to clog the system.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: is this the same CBP?

Dammit. Accidentally submitted that. They want to spend money in this way. Why? They profit from it. The for profit detention centers, the minor relocation orgs, and I am sure other orgs are all owned in whole or part by admin officials or their family. They are profiting. And the Profiteer in Chief, a real estate developer with construction connections is proposing a multi billion dollar construction project to solve it? Guess who is grifting that one?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: is this the same CBP?

The Trump administration has refused to spend money on ways to clear the backlog of asylum detainees, like more judges and admin officials …

As I understand it, the Obama administration reallocated judges and admin officials from duties for other districts in order to boost the numbers handling the influx. And it worked.

But when the influx increased again, that reserve was already in play. You need more qualified judges and administrators, and in the best case there’s a training lag. And this isn’t a best case.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Exposure to CBP causes unnatural aging!

If I was 31 in jan of 2018, then turned 32 in feb, then by march of 2019 I’d be 33.

That’s how birthdays and legal recognition of age work. It’s why the ages of the kids in your classes at school never lined up exactly. It’s also how for 9 months of the year, I am two years older than my sister, but for three months I am only one year older than her.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Exposure to CBP causes unnatural aging!

I think he techdirt article saying "A couple of weeks later" is wrong, more like "a year and a couple weeks later"

Reading the transcript techdirt linked to the time line was more like:
She was 19
Spent 14 months in detention and was released
Then later, after she turned 22 a hearing was held where the DHS stated to her lawyer it would no longer "contest" the "contents" of her passport.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Isn't sex trafficking involuntary?

I’m all for rescuing "trafficked" girls, but only if they want to be rescued.

It sounds like this woman (girl, whatever) doesn’t want to be rescued.

If she’s been told that people think she’s being trafficked for sex work, and that she has options to get out of it, yet still wants to be released…why in God’s name don’t they release her?

Either she’s not being trafficked or she genuinely prefers sex work in the US to sitting in the CBP’s jail. Either way, let her go.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Isn't sex trafficking involuntary?

It’s trickier than this. Imagine some powerful guy shows up to your parents house and takes your brother hostage and threatens to kill your parents if you don’t comply.

If you don’t show up at the rendezvous point in the new country on time, your parents die and your brother goes to the front lines.

Such a person is going to insist they prefer sex work to any alternative. But budging on this just empowers the sex trafficking trade as a whole, even if stopping it does result in the death of the individual’s entire family and their imprisonment.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Re: Isn't sex trafficking involuntary?

I get that, but you can make that same argument about ANY kind of work.

"Show up at Boeing on Thursday and start designing airliners, or we torture your parents to death."

That kind of thing is a problem that needs to be solved wherever the criminals are threatening family members.

You can’t use it as an excuse to take away autonomy from people.

kog999 says:

"Apparently, the "non-exclusive" part of the law is being ignored. Nothing but an X-ray and a CBP officer’s hunch turned 19-year-old Yong Xiong into a 17-year-old"

the X-ray wasn’t exclusive. you say it yourself they also had the CBP officer’s hunch. as if the CBP officer’s hunch wasn’t incontrovertible proof enough on its own they even backed it up with an X-Ray that didn’t directly make the officers hunch impossible. what more could you possibly ask for? Next time just to be extra sure maybe a second CBP officer can confirms the first’s hunch. strictly for convenience the officer could use one of his direct reports.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Trafficing?? from OUTSIDE the USA, White hemosphere??

If you read the transcript, they DID call the family, and checking her home country, and verified her school exams back home with her age on them… and still thought everyone was lying about her age.

They spent a lot of time and money on keeping an adult locked up in a juvenile detention facility simply because she was short and looked "young".

Anonymous Coward says:


In the documents, the dentist writes, quote, "The range of possible ages is 14.76 to 19.56 years." In other words, it’s totally plausible that Yong could be 19 as she’s been saying.

When a test is only accurate within a 5-year range, any result with more than 2 significant digits should immediately be tossed and taken as a sign that whoever wrote the number does not know what they’re doing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: propaganda

whatever weak propaganda he linked to

Yes, it is propaganda, and in the truest sense of the word.

The video was made by the U.S. federal government, and resides on a YouTube channel operated by the U.S. federal government. That should be obvious. Perhaps less obvious is that it’s a jail and not some frolicking summer camp.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 propaganda

What a shame you find it impossible to find words to express yourself, and instead have to attempt to waste everyone’s time with uncited links to videos instead. I know that this is a popular tactic with conspiracy-minded types because it’s harder for people to fact check than cited written documents, but it’s a poor fool who think this will win any points outside of the already indoctrinated.

Magnus Bergqvist says:

Not only the US athat fudges dates

Well here in Sweden there has been a couple of cases where youths from countries such as Afghanistan has come as refugees (without any parents). The immigration-department has used skecthcy x-ray results to claim that those persons were above 18, and thus adults, and thus could be deported without any problems..

Let’s just say the immigration-department is a bit of a clusterfuck here.

John85851 (profile) says:

This sounds like a conspiracy theorist denying the facts

She says she’s 19? She lied.
Ask her family about her age. They said she was 19 so they lied to cover for her.
Ask her school which has records that shows she was 19. They must have faked the records.
Ask her previous employers who have government-issued documents to prove her age. You know those foreign government- they always falsify their records.
"Bone age" shows she’s around 19 years old. The scans lied: she’s 15 with "old bone" syndrome.

Or, you know, she really is 19.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: This sounds like a conspiracy theorist denying the facts

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they were engaged in conspiracy thinking so much as a complete and total refusal to admit that they were wrong, both for this case and because it would open up the possibility that people might look at other instances where they declared what someone’s age was contrary to what they’d been told.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Both stupidity and malice apply.

It doesn’t matter if ICE agents are wrong in misstating someone’s age due to stubbornness, or due to a desire to game crime statistics, having been caught being wrong and insisting they are right still invites suspicion and scrutiny regarding other cases where a detainee’s age was determined to be different than declared.

Granted, they might have been too stupid or too stubborn to see that being stubborn would cause them this additional grief.

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