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DNA to Reunify Separated Migrant Families

May 27, 2021

Proposed framework would function outside of government control and use a DNA database to find matches for family reunification

An interdisciplinary group of physicians, human rights scholars, immigration attorneys and genetics experts propose a DNA-led framework for reunifying hundreds of families who were separated at the U.S. border. In their article published in the journal Science, the authors advocate for a DNA database system to identify genetic matches and stress that it must operate outside of government control to protect the identities of migrant families. They also caution that given the trauma experienced by these children and their families, trauma-informed approaches will be essential throughout this work.

“The need is urgent and establishing a DNA database is almost certainly the most expeditious tool for reconnecting a majority of families. This is an important contrast to the approach in 2018 to use one-to-one DNA testing on individual families to verify relationships prior to reunification,” said co-lead author Sara Katsanis, who leads the Genetics and Justice Laboratory at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and is a Research Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Our strategy adopts an approach proven to work well for disaster victim identifications used, for example, following a fatal plane crash or during the disastrous California wildfires.” She added that the approach takes into account privacy protections of the people and data by using de-identification strategies common in clinical trials.

The authors propose that an intergovernmental organization (perhaps the International Commission on Missing Persons) manage anonymous DNA data storage and comparisons for relatives. Such organizations have protected status and cannot be required to release information to any governments.

DNA swabs and consent could be collected by legal representatives or partnering non-profit advocacy organizations from relatives in Central America and separated children in the United States. The DNA swabs would be anonymized by the partnering organization and analyzed using rapid DNA technologies locally to enable direct, quick analysis and secure transfer of data to the international database without going through governmental laboratories.

Matches from the DNA database then would be communicated to the partnering nonprofit organizations, so that they can, with the assistance of advocates using a trauma-informed approach, directly correspond to determine how and whether family members might be reunified with their children. 

“We have the science, we have the ethical protocols for trauma-informed approaches to consent, and we have organizations that know how to responsibly implement this DNA-led approach to reconnecting families. To move forward, we want to make the Biden Administration and the Family Reunification Task Force aware of the potential of DNA for reunifying migrant families,” said Katsanis.

More information can be found at DNAbridge.org.

Research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is conducted through the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. It is the pediatric training ground for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 220,000 children from 48 states and 49 countries.