Whether you are for or against DNA testing, advocates of DNA databases would point out that tracing your genealogy has its benefits when you’re looking for long-lost family members. In a world with billions of people, using your DNA to find your biological parents is the most accurate way of determining who and where your parents are. However, it comes at a cost.
DNA Testing to Reunite Families
The most recent example for this is the case of the American Civil Liberties Union against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE received a lot of backlash when they were found separating children from their migrant parents, who were sent back beyond the US-Mexico border. In July 2018, the US District Court in San Diego decided to use DNA testing as a faster method of fulfilling the court order of returning children under the age of five to their parents.
Instead of going through documentation and anecdotal information, they would use DNA samples to connect children with their rightful parents. The teams would take swabs from children and the parents and send it to a third-party laboratory for a week-long analysis and confirmation.
It’s a process that isn’t new to the government. During the Obama administration, it was used as a last result during unauthorized border crossers when they wanted to verify if unaccompanied minors were related to their sponsors in the United States. Outside of the ICE incident in the present, it is still used to determine family ties to refugees seeking permission to bring family members to the United States.
Possible Invasion of Privacy
However, when DNA testing laboratories were asked if they were in responsible for the DNA testing of the children, they denied any testing authorized by the government, or otherwise failed to comment. Only 23andMe and MyHeritage have offered to assist in this endeavor. That’s because in a project this size, it can be a significant expense for the government to ensure the chain of custody for DNA. But that begs the question why some of the biggest DNA testing companies are turning down this opportunity to help reunite families.
When it was announced that DNA testing would be used, immigrant advocated criticized the move, calling it a violation on human rights, since like other DNA samples used by testing companies, those children’s biological profiles would remain in the database for the rest of their lives.
There’s also the issue of consent. Children aren’t qualified to consent to provide a DNA sample, and the fact that the US has separated children from their parents means that the parents are not present to provide consent. There’s also the issue of non-biological parents who have to look for their legitimately adopted children as well as parents who have been deported to Central America countries far away from the nearest testing site.
A “Privacy Nightmare”?
The problem I see here is that DNA testing to reunite children has potential risks to privacy and security. The US is imposing solutions which, honestly, should never have been needed in the first place if thousands of immigrants were just left unseparated. 23andMe reached out to RAICES, an immigrant aid group working to reunite immigrant families, but declined to assist in DNA testing given the information risk. They claimed that by using DNA samples, the government was trying to solve a violation of civil rights with another violation of civil rights.
And they’re not alone in this stand. Immigrant organizations believed that collecting immigrants’ biometrics and DNA can have legal and ethical consequences. By taking DNA samples, yes, they will eventually reunite children with their biological parents, but in doing so, they normalize DNA collection with the idea that it’s okay to be mass collecting samples from children (without valid consent) and companies will be able to use this information in the future. And the fact that the US wants to collect DNA samples of their own when immigration authorities have already taken DNA data is a point for concern.
Tracking Via Biometrics
Taking the DNA samples of immigrants and children would mean the government can track if immigrants involved in the separation return to the United States. And given that there are already multiple ways to track people using their biometrics, it’s not hard to image a Big Brother, 1984-type of society where everyone is accounted for and privacy is sacrificed for surveillance.
Over the last twenty years, the Department of Homeland Security shouldered billions for biometric tools that store millions of unique biological features that can provide an accurate, nearly fool proof way of identifying citizens at any given moment. The ICE and other migration organizations have already been collecting these biometrics for years, so it begs the question why they need a DNA sample when they already have the biometrics and info to connect a child with their parents. Because apart from DNA samples, the ICE is known to treat children as if they were sending them to jail, taking mugshots which could also be used for facial recognition.
Is It a Good Idea?
DNA experts are divided on the implications of DNA and biometrics collection for reuniting immigrant families. On one hand, it provides accurate results for children to be reunited with their families, and several DNA companies have the ability to prevent child trafficking by connecting a child to its parents. However, they question why this is happening just now, and recommend private organizations work with the government to provide better regulation, protection, and legislation when it comes to DNA collecting.
On the other hand, biometrics experts claim DNA sampling is the last thing we need, given the possibility of private companies exploiting a lot of personal information which, in turn, could harm the right to privacy for everyone involved.
DNA testing could be used to reunite families, and it can be used to strengthen security and protect children and minors crossing the border, but it comes at a cost of privacy, security, and leaving sensitive data at the hands of authorities. And that’s a price many people aren’t willing to pay.