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DNA in Immigration Projects

Traditionally, proof-of-identity (POI) at the border has relied on attributed and biographical data, but this approach is waning due to perpetrators’ ability to compromise POI documents easily. Biometric identification can be used to detect document falsification or facilitate return procedures of failed asylum-seekers. Unlike other biometric forms of identification, DNA is useful for establishing biological relationships, making it ideally suited for resolving questions of relatedness. DNA is applied in immigration contexts such as collection of DNA from detained border crossers, use of DNA to verify family relationships of border crossers or reunify migrant family members, and use of DNA for the identification of missing migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Genomic information might be used in migration policies in three ways:

  1. Biometric Identity: DNA typing for a database to trace an individual
  2. Relationship Testing: comparison of DNA profiles from two or more individuals to confirm or refute claimed relationships
  3. Ancestry Testing: analysis of a person’s ancestral biological origins

The collection and use of biometrics, and particularly DNA, by immigration authorities, law enforcement, and courts for identification raises justice, civil, social, and ethical questions. Improper or inappropriate collection and use of DNA of non-criminals can raise questions of human rights violations and abuse of power. DNA collection historically raises contentions regarding privacy of genetic information, uses of stored DNA profiles, secondary uses of stored DNA samples, and the disparate effect of collection practices on historically vulnerable populations, including the exposure of migrants to abuse and coercion. Genomic technologies are valuable for demonstrating claimed relationships for screening migrants, but policies favoring biological relationships over other community links might not be in families’ best interests.

Geneticization of the term “family” and stratification of applicants based on biological interpretations of race and identity could shift policies towards stigmatization and discrimination. Biometrics collected for humanitarian purposes (e.g., missing persons) also might be used for surveillance or to track migrants that might be a threat to the state. What information is collected, who collects and stores it, and who has access to it are challenges that could undermine our values of justice and equality.

Evaluating emerging uses of DNA is essential for developing policies that protect migrants, high-risk individuals, and innocent citizens from abuses of power.

DNA to Aid Reunification of Separated Migrant Families

Over 5,000 children were separated from their families as a result of the implementation of the ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policy on United States borders in 2018. Beyond the United States, there are many historical and contemporary examples of large numbers of children being separated from their families, whether in the immigration process or under other circumstances, such as illegal adoption. Family DNA testing can play a valuable role in helping families locate each other, in the reunification process, and in the prosecution of human rights violations. We are working in collaboration with other experts to develop a blueprint for efficient and ethical family DNA testing for use in current and future humanitarian crises. See dnabridge.org for more information.

BorderDNA Resources Project – Information on DNA Uses at the Border

Our research into the ethical, legal, and social implications of non-medical applications of genomics has revealed a need for informational resources for migrant communities and other stakeholders such as NGOs, law enforcement, government, journalists, and the general public. We are working with other academic experts as part of our BorderDNA Resources Project and in consultation with NGOs, government, law enforcement, and scientists to develop educational materials for migrant communities undergoing DNA testing and stakeholders who engage with them across three topic areas: (A) transnational missing persons investigations; (B) collection of DNA from detainees for the federal DNA database CODIS; and (C) DNA testing of family units at the U.S.-Mexico border.








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