American Oversight has obtained communications showing that in March 2020, Kirstjen Nielsen, the former homeland security secretary who enforced family separation at the border, recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services work with a private company that had previously contracted with the government to conduct DNA testing on immigrants.
In the records, which HHS released in response to an American Oversight Freedom of Information Act request, Nielsen emailed then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar on March 11, 2020, to pitch ANDE, a corporation specializing in rapid DNA technology. Nielsen specified that she did “not have any financial or contractual arrangement” with ANDE, and added, “I know about them b/c I had hoped we could deploy rapid DNA technology on our southern border for a variety of reasons.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, American Oversight’s investigations and other public reporting have shown how private companies had privileged access to top White House officials, allowing them to get their foot in the door and insert themselves into the Trump administration’s pandemic response. These new communications show that ANDE, which has existing ties to the Department of Homeland Security, was among the companies promoted among and by top officials.
As Nielsen mentioned, ANDE had previously worked closely with the Trump administration’s DHS. In May 2019, just a month after Nielsen resigned as secretary, DHS began a pilot program to conduct DNA testing at the border using ANDE’s technology. The program had the stated goal of determining the veracity of migrants’ claimed family relationships, which Nielsen and other Trump administration officials had claimed were often “fake.”
False claims about family ties are rare — in May 2019, BuzzFeed found that fewer than 1 percent of the family units apprehended at the southern border in the prior year had lied about family membership or said that someone over the age of 18 was a child. Using DNA tests to investigate claims of kinship is also imperfect — they are typically better at confirming direct parentage than extended family ties, creating the risk of other relatives being accused of fraud or of non-traditional family structures being penalized.
Although the pilot program was initially scheduled to last just a few days, in June 2019 Immigrations and Customs Enforcement announced it would be extended for 120 days.
Nielsen’s email to Azar also included a “description of the solution” provided by ANDE. “We have an established and broadly validated tool that was developed collaboratively with the US DOD for other applications that can relatively quickly be applied to the COVID-19 threat,” said ANDE’s summary. “We request an opportunity to brief you on the technology and its potential global impact in controlling the spread of contagious disease.”
On March 12, 2020, Azar forwarded Nielsen’s recommendation to Paul Mango, the deputy chief of staff for policy at HHS, who then looped in HHS Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir and Jeffrey Shuren, the director of the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the Food and Drug Administration.
When asked about the company’s involvement in the pandemic response, ANDE declined to comment. There is no public indication that ANDE received an HHS contract or developed a Covid-19 test. However, according to public data, at time of publication, ANDE has ongoing contracts with DHS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the most recent of which began in November. In April, ANDE received more than $2 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans.
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