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.