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

Current Projects

  • DNA for family reunification across borders
  • DNA collection from migrants
  • Biogeographic ancestry markers from migrant applicants
  • DNA for identification of missing migrants