The Government Is Using Creepy Racial Pseudoscience to Determine Immigrant Kids' Ages From Teeth

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A troubling report by Vice News yesterday documented the shaky method being used by the U.S. government to determine whether unaccompanied minors that arrive at the border are really children or whether they should be placed in immigration jails for adults. It’s a horrifying new case study in how our government dehumanizes immigrants.

If an unaccompanied child arrives at the border and is under 18, they’re housed with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and put on path to be released to family members. But if they’re 18 or over, they’re sent to ICE custody, where they stay in detention centers while going through deportation proceedings. (If a child in ORR custody turns 18, they’re turned over to ICE. Happy birthday.)


Because of the two regimes, the government has to figure out how old kids are to decide where to send them, as they often arrive without documentation of their age like a birth certificate. According to government documents obtained by Vice News, government agencies “sometimes turn to a highly disputed science to determine how old the immigrants are: forensic odontology.” Forensic odontology is generally used for such purposes as identifying human remains or analyzing bite marks, but in this case it’s being used to determine the age of immigrants in conjunction with statistical data on race and gender.

This will determine whether a person goes to ICE and is deported or goes to ORR and could potentially be settled with sponsors in America—a process that’s fraught with problems itself, but arguably a better outcome than going straight to ICE detention facilities, which Vice News points out are “akin to prisons.”


ORR is legally prohibited from using forensic odontology by itself to determine age under the 2008 Trafficking Victims Reauthorization and Protection Act, according to the site. But in 2016, a court found the agency had in fact used dental x-rays alone to send a Somali boy to ICE custody before ordering him back to ORR’s custody.

That determination was made by David Senn, director of the Center for Education and Research in Forensics at the University of Texas San Antonio. As Vice News reported, Senn “analyzes dental development and inputs data into a program he helped develop called UT-AGE, along with information on the subject’s sex and race. Using statistical data, it then produces an estimated age range, mean age, and a probability that the person is over 18.”

But the data Senn uses is deeply questionable. In the case of the Somali boy, for example, Senn reportedly “determined the juvenile was ‘African,’” so he “compared his teeth to a dataset of American blacks mostly taken at a dental college and office in Tennessee, and an Arkansas prison.”

In fact, all the ethnic categories in his method are backed up by similarly shaky data. Per Vice News:

Critical odontologists say the problem is that the dental analysis is based on just four studies relating dental development to ethnicity, and those studies include disclaimers about the limitations of the method. Nonetheless, anyone deemed “Asian” is assigned a study of Japanese juveniles. Anyone “American Hispanic” gets a study of North and South Texans of Hispanic descent, sometimes determined by their last name. Anyone “European” gets a study of American and Canadian “whites.” And anyone “African” gets a study of American blacks from an Arkansas penal facility and two practices in Tennessee.


Read that again: “A study of North and South Texans of Hispanic descent, sometimes determined by their last name.” The vast majority of immigrants detained at the border will be “Hispanic” or Latinx, yet the supporting data for these determinations come from just one study out of Texas. Are the teeth of people from Mexico similar to those of people from Colombia? El Salvador? Why am I even asking these insane questions?

Earlier this year, Senn’s methodology was at the heart of the case of Hamid, an Afghan teen fleeing the Taliban, who was put in ICE custody after they decided he was over 18. His lawyers argued he was under 18, despite his passport showing he was over 18—minors aren’t allowed to leave Afghanistan without a parent. Senn “concluded that the likelihood that Hamid is 18 years old is greater than 79 percent,” according to KTVU.


Hamid “lived in a tiny village and has never seen a dentist or received oral care,” his lawyers told the station. They also found an “Afghan identity document showing that he is either 16 or 17 years old.” But Senn’s 79 percent certainty that Hamid was an adult was good enough for ICE. (A immigration judge disagreed, but ICE appealed the ruling.)

Senn defend his methodology; he told Vice News he was “just reporting data based on the development of the teeth,” and that it was the government’s responsibility to use that data in a holistic fashion.


He also told Vice News he “performed this service, mostly for ICE and ORR contractors, 79 times in 2018, and hundreds of times over the years, going back to the 1990s. His current rate for an age assessment is approximately $228 per examination, paid to his employer.” Nice gig.

This practice betrays the government’s commitment to dehumanizing immigrants. Check their teeth, put them through the algorithm, send them to detention. Put ankle monitors on them. Get a five-year-old to sign away her rights. Put a two-year-old on trial. Arrest people driving their pregnant wife to give birth or dropping their kids off at school. Separate families at the border. Turn every human aspect of an immigrant’s life, like being a parent or even being a child, into a terrifying ordeal.


It’s also not new with Trump: The Somali boy was erroneously sent to ICE detention under Obama. Getting rid of Trump will not cure ICE—only getting rid of it completely could begin to.