Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores offered a defense of detaining children at the border for prolonged periods when she advocated for mandatory DNA testing for migrants during a Turning Point USA event in Brownsville.
“Right now they just want the child to be out of the facility for as fast as possible. They have removed all DNA testing so there is no more DNA testing, and I 100% think we need to bring that back,” the former Republican congresswoman said at a conference Saturday. “I don’t care if these children are with us for months.”
Flores is running to retake her seat in the 34th Congressional District from Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez. Three other Republicans are running in the district, but Flores has the backing of national Republican groups and is leading in fundraising.
In her statements, she defended former President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, which was widely criticized as inhumane after it led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents or guardians, who were detained and prosecuted for illegal entry. “The previous administration, you had to do DNA testing and that is why children would stay in custody longer even though a lot of people would criticize. Why are they holding the children?” Flores said. “Well, because we would rather have them in custody until we are 100% sure that they are going to be with someone that they are related to.”
When asked to elaborate on her comments, Flores rejected the notion that she was advocating the return of Trump-era family separations.
“I completely oppose separating children from their families and the mainstream media twisting my words to fit their partisan agenda,” Flores said in a text message when asked by the Tribune about her remarks.
DNA testing migrants began under Trump’s administration amid concerns that adults were claiming children as their own to avoid detention. The practice continued into President Joe Biden’s administration, though immigrant rights activists have raised concerns over privacy, particularly among asylum seekers fleeing repressive governments.
Federal agents collected DNA samples from over a third of migrants they detained in fiscal year 2022, according to the Government Accountability Office, but struggled with DNA collection kit shortages. In her Saturday talk, Flores suggested that problem could be resolved by detaining children until authorities can verify they are traveling with parents or legal guardians.
“Right now they are not even asking for documentation, we are just taking their word. I am sorry but in today’s times, your word is not enough for me. Show me, prove to me this is your child,” she said at the Turning Point event.
Turning Point USA is a national conservative youth organization with chapters at universities across the country. The group regularly hosts events with conservative speakers.
Federal law usually prohibits migrant children from being detained longer than 20 days. But under the Trump administration, thousands of children were taken into government care after being separated from their parents under the zero tolerance policy. With their parents detained, the children were treated as unaccompanied minors after the 20-day detention limit.
The federal government scrambled to find shelters or families to house the children. Eventually, the Trump administration reversed course on family separations after fierce public blowback.
Flores isn’t alone in insisting on more DNA testing for migrants. Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation to codify DNA testing migrants before releasing them with children.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden of Terrell were both original backers of a bill to do so, introduced by Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee last summer. That bill would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to treat a child as an unaccompanied minor if it cannot establish the child’s family or legal ties with an accompanying adult.
Flores won election in the 34th district in a 2022 special election after the retirement of Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela. She is the first Mexican-born woman elected to Congress. Flores was in office for only a few months, much of that while the House was in recess. But she made a mark as being an outspoken conservative, portending greater inroads among Republicans in the traditionally Democratic South Texas.
Flores lost reelection to Gonzalez, who ran in the district after moving from the neighboring 15th Congressional District. Since redistricting, the district is heavily favored to vote Democratic; Biden would have won it by over 15 points under the new lines. Gonzalez won his 2022 race by over 8 points after national groups from both parties poured millions of dollars into the race.
Republicans are hoping to recapture the seat this year. The National Republican Congressional Committee named the 34th district its main Texas target for a flip this year.
We can’t wait to welcome you to downtown Austin Sept. 5-7 for the 2024 Texas Tribune Festival! Join us at Texas’ breakout politics and policy event as we dig into the 2024 elections, state and national politics, the state of democracy, and so much more. When tickets go on sale this spring, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.