This past summer, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America were crossing the Texas-Mexico border.
One of the challenges of this crisis is ensuring that when the children are sent back to Central America, that they are returned to an actual family member and not a human trafficker or other predator.
I witnessed this challenge firsthand as I traveled to the border as the chairwoman of the House Working Group to address this crisis.
One promising solution has emerged from a DNA expert in North Texas with decades of experience running a crime lab, identifying human remains and reuniting missing children with their parents.
Arthur Eisenberg, who co-directs the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, has a two-part plan: to set up a DNA database from samples obtained from migrant children who have reached the Texas border and to establish a second database of samples from parents or family members with missing or abducted children.
When a match occurs, authorities can have a reasonable level of confidence that these children are being reunited with family members.
This plan for unaccompanied migrant children is an extension of Eisenberg’s already successful DNA Prokids program, which returned 13 Haitian children to their families after they were kidnapped and taken to Bolivia in the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010.
He already has agreements in place with like-minded colleagues and government officials in Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala to get DNA samples from relatives and to establish databases there.
Innovative ideas such as these, which have law enforcement and humanitarian applications, are why I helped ensure that funding is available in the omnibus bill passed by Congress last week for DNA forensic technology programs.
This can be used to reunite children with their family members in Central America and to continue the fight against human trafficking.
In the new law, there is a provision to instruct the State Department to work with countries in Central America to utilize DNA forensic science and databases and to strengthen regional cooperation in combating human trafficking.
I expect these efforts will include collaboration with local law enforcement, civil society and academic institutions, as well as leverage investments from the private sector.
Worldwide, Eisenberg’s program has collected and processed almost 11,000 samples in 15 countries, resulting in 724 children being returned to their families and preventing more than 200 illegal adoptions.
Because human trafficking spans nations and exists on nearly every continent, it’s easy to pass it off as an international problem without local implications. But such assumptions are wrong.
The FBI estimates that there are more than 100,000 children in the United States being trafficked in the sex trade or working in forced labor or debt-bondage conditions.
North Texas has been identified as a central hub for traffickers moving victims through the Interstate 35 corridor, and Houston and El Paso have been cited by the Justice Department as two cities in the U.S. where trafficking is most prominent.
DNA forensic science and DNA databases have unique capabilities to confirm identities and have proven to be effective in deterring and preventing human trafficking in Central America, Mexico and the United States.
It is an increasingly effective weapon in a rapidly expanding arsenal.
Human trafficking isn’t just a Texas problem, but I’m proud that we’ve found some Texas solutions in Fort Worth to help fight it.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth has served the 12th Congressional District since 1997 and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.