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Why immigration groups said no to using DNA to reunite separated kids

23andMe and MyHeritage have offered to help connect missing children at the border to their parents, but groups working there fear that they could do more harm than good–and think the government should just do its job.

Why immigration groups said no to using DNA to reunite separated kids
[Photo: John Moore/Getty Images]

For the more than 2,000 immigrant kids who were taken from their parents when they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of the Trump administration’s new zero-tolerance immigration policy, it isn’t clear how difficult it will be to reunite them with their families now that the Trump administration has said that it wants to end its policy family separation.

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Though many of the kids have ended up in shelters several states away, the government says that it “knows the location of all the children in its custody” and it has a plan for reunification–albeit with no clear timeline or further details. Some nonprofits and attorneys working on cases say that they’ve struggled to locate children for their clients as they navigate through a labyrinthine, multi-agency bureaucracy. In some cases, children may have been listed under the wrong name or age in their intake papers. Toddlers may not remember their parents’ full names; in one case, a 6-year-old was able to reach a family member only because she’d memorized a phone number.

In response, DNA testing companies 23andMe and MyHeritage both announced on June 21 that they would provide free testing kits to parents and children to help connect them. “It’s inspiring to see the massive outreach around helping these families,” 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki tweeted on June 21. Both customers and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier had petitioned 23andMe to make the offer.

MyHeritage, which has also donated tests to help adoptees find their birth families, said it would provide 5,000 kits, and that it was contacting relevant government agencies and nonprofits. 23andMe later said that it would work only with nonprofit legal aid organizations. A spokesperson for MyHeritage told Fast Company that the genomics company planned to handle all of the data itself rather than sharing it with third parties, and that the data would be protected as it is for other customers. If someone wants to have their DNA records destroyed, they could request that. But the offers still raised ethical questions–and questions about how useful the technology could be in this situation. Both RAICES Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project, leading civil rights groups that work with immigrant families, decided to decline the offer.

“These are already very vulnerable communities, and this would potentially put their privacy at risk,” RAICES communications director Jennifer Falcon told KQED. The same privacy issues exist with any DNA testing. MyHeritage recently reported a data breach, and though it didn’t involve DNA data, it’s possible that could occur in the future. Law enforcement could potentially subpoena genetic information to use in future criminal investigations. (The recent case of the Golden State Killer, in which investigators uploaded DNA to an open-source genetic platform–which has different privacy restrictions than private DNA testing companies–to identify the suspect by first identifying his relatives sparked privacy concerns about DNA testing.)

“Certainly it’s a risk,” says Sara Katsanis, a researcher at Duke University who focuses on genetic testing applications in medicine and law enforcement. “I think it’s important that we have that conversation now that we need some sort of regulatory protection for genetic information that’s collected for a human rights application that it not be used for other secondary purposes, even for criminal justice purposes.”

There’s also a risk that a test could accidentally reveal information that could have unwanted consequences–for example, if a father learns that he’s not actually the biological father of a child, that could potentially lead to violence against the mother. Additionally, there are questions about consent to take a DNA test when a parent is in duress under custody, and a child needs to have the consent of a legal guardian to take a test.

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Still, the testing could be done in a way that minimizes some of the risk. Samples could automatically be destroyed after testing, rather than requiring families to request that it happens. “This is not something that needs to be kept forever,” says Katsanis. “It’s not evidence.” MyHeritage does not plan to automatically delete records, and 23andMe has not announced that it plans to, though it is still working out the details of how the process could work. Rapid DNA tests could also be used on-site and then destroyed, though rapid test kits don’t have the advantage of looking at more distant relationships, Katsanis says–only whether someone is a parent.

The genetic tests from companies like 23andMe, unlike a traditional paternity test, can identify more distant relationships like aunts and uncles. That could be useful when children cross the border with a different family member than a parent, or if they need to go live with a relative while a parent is in detention, and that relationship needs to be verified. Separately, in cases where an agency suspects that a child is a victim of human trafficking, DNA tests could be used to prove that someone truly is a child’s parent.

It doesn’t work perfectly–if a child was adopted, for example, DNA won’t be helpful. “As we know, the family is a social construct, not a biological one, and using biology as the only tool is never going to be a smart or successful model because non-traditional families will be excluded from that paradigm,” Katsanis says.

DNA tests wouldn’t be necessary to reunite families if agencies had complete and accurate records, of course. And it’s possible that despite some signs of flaws, those records do exist. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is working with nearly 400 people who have been separated from family members since May, says that it was contacted by the genomics companies, but doesn’t have plans to work with them. “That’s just not something that we’re thinking about right now,” says Zenen Jaimes Perez, the organization’s communications director. “If the government is doing its job, they should have no problem to match people.” The biggest challenge, he says, is the time constraint of trying to match families before parents are deported. DNA tests won’t make bureaucracy work faster; one problem parents have had when trying to locate their children is simply that no one has answered the hotline set up at the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The sheer volume of cases makes the process harder. When the nonprofit calls on its clients’ behalf, each call can take 40 minutes, and the organization is working to help 381 people.

“There’s just a lot of fast-moving pieces, and we’re racing against the clock to try to connect as many people as possible,” says Perez.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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