Family Ties and DNA at the Border: Untangling Misconceptions – ISHI News


Family Ties and DNA at the Border: Untangling Misconceptions

Wednesday September 26th, 2018 // 1:30 pm - 2:00 pm // North Ballroom

As the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy unfolded in Spring-Summer 2018, so too did a barrage of stories around migrant children being separated from their parents, and then mandates to re-unify them by judge-ordered deadlines. Atop the chaos were calls for DNA testing to screen migrants for trafficking, offers from genomics companies to donate tests and reagents, and the announcement of DNA as a tool to reunify families. As legislators, civil liberties advocates, geneticists, ethicists, and attorneys got involved, the media sprang into action to translate for the public the convoluted history of the use of DNA in immigration. The actors got some details right, some wrong. Some conflated facts were:

  1. Since 2009 federal law authorizes collection of DNA from detainees for CODIS;
  2. DNA can be useful to verify claimed relationships at the border;
  3. DNA is (and has been) required in some refugee family reunification contexts; and
  4. DNA often is used for family reunification immigrant petitions.

Various tests were confused: consumer genomic services vs. commercial relationship testing services vs. forensic DNA laboratories. Misconceptions spread as officials remained silent on
details: Would DNA be collected and stored and would DNA profiles be databased or uploaded to CODIS? Who would get DNA test reports? How could minors and migrants under dire
circumstances give informed consent? In the end, some families benefitted by DNA testing and expedited reunification, while others (such as non-traditional families) were harmed by the lack of guidance and rushed processes. The politically-charged crisis left many victims in its wake, primarily the children and families marred by the experience, but also the reputation of DNA as an identity tool. The various layers of history, legal authority, technology, and partial information left media and critics no choice but to denounce use of DNA as invasive, premature,
and a distinct human rights violation. We should not wait for the next crisis: a lesson must be learned here. Transparency in government process can enable experts to communicate and foster public dialogue. Experts can translate confusing aspects to the public. DNA has a valuable role in documenting identity at the border, screening for fraud, and reunification of displaced
biological relatives. The forensic community has a duty to quash the rumor mill, speculation and fear-mongering that proliferate in the absence of facts, and instead clarify nuances to alleviate public concerns for privacy and integrity of processes.


Private: Sara Katsanis

Faculty Instructor in the Initiative for Science & Society, Duke University

Sara Huston Katsanis is faculty instructor in the Initiative for Science & Society at Duke University. Her policy research focuses on genetic testing applications in humanitarian efforts, medicine and law enforcement. She researches ethical and policy challenges in the applications of genomics to human identification in contexts, such as human trafficking, migration, and adoption fraud.

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Private: Jennifer Wagner

Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Bioethics Research in the Center for Translational Bioethics & Health Care Policy, Geisinger Health System

Jennifer K. Wagner, J.D., Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Bioethics Research in the Center for Translational Bioethics & Health Care Policy at Geisinger Health System (Danville, PA, USA) and is a licensed, practicing attorney in Pennsylvania. She is the current chair of the Social Issues Committee for the American Society of Human Genetics, a member of the Ethics and Science Policy Committees for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, member of the Ethics Committee for the American Association of Anthropological Genetics, and member of the Cybersecurity and Data Privacy Committee for the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

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