DNA Testing Might Help Reunite Families Separated by Trump. But It Could Create a Privacy Nightmare.

Companies like 23andMe and MyHeritage have offered free DNA kits to help unite immigrant families. Immigration and privacy advocates are not so enthused.

DNA sequences. Computer artwork of an autoradiogram of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) sequences. A close up view of a sequence (also known as the DNA fingerprint) is superimposed in the foreground. The sequence is four rows of irregularly spaced black bands. A DNA sample can be taken from body fluids such as blood, and body tissues. The DNA is then fragmented with enzymes to form the banding pattern. The bands represent the positioning of the base pairs on the DNA molecule. This banding makes up the genetic code in the form of genes which is unique to every person.
A rendering of an autoradiogram of DNA sequences. Photo: Science Photo Library/Getty Images

In the face of the Trump administration’s neglect and indifference toward the reunification of the thousands of immigrant families it has forcibly separated, some lawmakers, activists, and celebrities have called for the use of DNA testing, along with other biometrics, as a means to return some 3,700 children to their parents. So far, at least two direct-to-consumer genealogy companies have heeded those calls. MyHeritage and 23andMe have both offered to donate DNA sampling kits for the purposes of verifying kinship.

“In light of the humanitarian tragedy that has taken place, in which children have been separated from their parents, we have decided to rise to the challenge and take the lead in helping these families,” Gilad Japhet, founder and CEO of MyHeritage, said in a press statement. The company is offering 5,000 free DNA tests for separated parents and children, and it plans to distribute the kits through government agencies and NGOs. Both MyHeritage and 23andMe have said that its DNA results will be processed confidentially and not shared with any third parties.

The founder of Silicon Valley startup 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, tweeted that the company had reached out to RAICES, a prominent Texas-based immigrant aid group, who has been working on family reunifications for over 30 years. RAICES, however, sees the well-intentioned offer as potentially creating more problems than it solves.

“We appreciate the offer, but that’s not a strategy that we really agree with,” Jennifer Falcon, communications director at RAICES, told The Intercept. “These are already vulnerable communities, and this would potentially put their information at risk with the very people detaining them. They’re looking to solve one violation of civil rights with something that could cause another violation of civil rights.”

“They’re looking to solve one violation of civil rights with something that could cause another violation of civil rights.”

Several leading immigrant advocacy and civil liberties organizations echoed this view, warning that expanding the collection of immigrants’ biometrics may create legal and ethical problems. Many describe the situation as a sort of Catch-22: Testing may provide a way to unite desperate families, but it also normalizes the collection of sensitive data and leaves it open to future misuse.

Allegra Love, director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, called the situation “exasperating.” “Obviously, the Trump administration was so careless about the manner that they chose to enforce their haphazard and inhumane ‘zero tolerance’ policy that we are now considering DNA testing to reunite infants with their families,” Love said. Alondra Nelson, a professor and genomics expert at Columbia University, said that “it speaks to extraordinary crisis and failure that’s been created that you see these companies feeling like they have a role to play.”

The focus on private DNA collection also ignores that immigration authorities already collect DNA and biometric data on many of the people that they apprehend – data that could, in theory, be used to facilitate reunification, but has long been a cause of concern for immigrant rights advocates.

Like so many of the policies implemented by the Trump administration, the crisis at the border has been intentionally chaotic. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new “zero tolerance” policy, the administration has taken at least 3,700 children from their parents since October 2017, with the numbers escalating drastically in the past two months. Last week, an unapologetic Donald Trump signed an executive order claiming he would end family separation by instead indefinitely detaining children and their kin together —a switch the American Civil Liberties Union has called a “sleight of hand.” Neither he nor other senior government officials have put forward a clear plan to reunify the thousands already torn apart.

Attorneys interviewed by The Intercept said that there was little to no coordinated government support in reunifying families. Some parents have already been deported, while others have been placed in detention without any information as to how to reach their children. Meanwhile, their children have been rendered unaccompanied and are being tracked through a separate database. These children have been placed into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, and then into detention or foster systems, in some cases hundreds of miles from where they were originally seized.

Parents and children have rarely been given the opportunity to communicate with each other, and many group homes were not given information about the children prior to their arrival, said Falcon of RAICES. Some of these children are infants and still others only speak indigenous languages, leaving advocacy groups scrambling to find translators. In some cases, it has become increasingly apparent that the government does not know where the children are either.

Without urgent and coordinated government action to reverse the effects of family separation, many fear that it will become permanent for some. For family members with infants, the longer the wait time, the more difficult their growing child might be to recognize. As a former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement told NBC News last week, the administration’s policy “could create thousands of immigrant orphans.”

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that many have proposed using DNA testing as a tool for reuniting families. The permanence of markers such as DNA, they say, could be especially helpful in situations in which reunification faces logistical barriers — such as a parent who is deported, or an infant who cannot communicate who their parent is.

Such uses are not without precedent. Face recognition, fingerprinting, and DNA analysis have successfully been used for family reunification in China and India. Police in New Delhi recently tested face recognition technology that identified nearly 3,000 missing children in four days. In Argentina, a group called Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo has used a national DNA database to locate children that the military dictatorship had seized from their families in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I can see why someone would want to rely on something like DNA to reunite families,” explained Jennifer Lynch, a biometrics expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Everyone wants to get these kids back with families, and if you’re talking about a young child, it’s very difficult for that child to describe what that parent looks like and how to describe that parent. My own son is 8 and can still barely remember my phone number.”

However, Lynch and others warn that “there’s a lot that could really go wrong with this plan.” To start, they say it is dangerous to assume that the same agencies demonizing unauthorized immigrants will not misuse a database of those immigrants’ genetic information. Plans to fingerprint or collect the DNA of marginalized ethnic groups in Italy, China, and Kuwait, for example, have come under fire from human rights watchdogs as racist. “The government would love to get access about this information to track people and match families who are living undocumented inside the United States,” Lynch said. “I could see this being used for pretty scary purposes.”

Jacinta Gonzalez, an organizer at Mijente, said that she hopes NGOs and government officials can minimize additional exposure for the vulnerable families impacted by the policy. She and others have criticized DNA matching as unnecessary, pointing to the names, documents, and photographs the government has already obtained. “They have the paperwork,” she said. “They don’t need DNA. If anything, this isn’t something that’s going to be helpful. It’s just another hoop for people to jump through.”

“The government would love to get access about this information to track people and match families who are living undocumented inside the United States.”

Nelson and others cautioned that if some NGOs or families do end up moving forward with DNA testing, strong policies are essential for protecting their information. Companies must institute restrictions on sharing data with any other agencies and purge samples as soon as possible. Last month, authorities arrested a murder suspect known as the “Golden State Killer” through a familial match on GEDmatch, a DNA analysis company, decades after he committed his crimes. The case, which subjected a private genetic database to police subpoena, showed how “the original intent of use can’t be guaranteed in the future,” Nelson said. “You see the state moving in to get access to data.”

Neither 23andMe nor MyHeritage use tests that are accredited to be accepted in immigration courts. But some say this is for the better, and that the tests should only be used by individuals or NGOs. If administered by government officials, a narrow definition of a relative could further separate children from other important relationships in their lives. DNA testing would exclude step-parents, adoptive parents, godparents, next of kin, and family members who may not be biologically related, Nelson said. At minimum, experts said there should be consent from adults and minors for testing — but given the young age of some of these children, and the potential for coercion in detention settings, true consent would be impossible.

Nelson, Lynch, Gonzalez, and others expressed concerns about such collection fitting into a larger trend of agencies collecting as much personal and biometric information as possible from immigrants, who are not protected by U.S. privacy laws. “Let’s hope use of genetics doesn’t open up a Pandora’s box for other uses and other populations,” Nelson said. “It seems like it’s OK in these cases because they are extraordinary cases, but it opens up a kind of normalizing and cooperation between private sector and the state with regards to collecting people’s sensitive genomic information.”

MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 23:  A migrant child looks out the window of a bus as protesters try to block a bus carrying migrant children out of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Detention Center on June 23, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. Dozens of protesters blocked the bus from leaving the center resulting in scuffles with police and Border Patrol agents before the bus retreated back to the center.  Before President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that halts the practice of separating families who were seeking asylum, over 2,300 immigrant children had been separated from their parents in the  zero-tolerance policy for border crossers.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A migrant child looks out the window of a bus transporting migrant children out of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Detention Center on June 23, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. Dozens of protesters blocked the bus from leaving the center.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It is a cruel irony that the same technologies used to monitor, track, and facilitate the deportation of immigrants might be used for the humane purpose of reunifying them with their families. Over the last two decades, the Department of Homeland Security has invested billions of dollars in biometric tools — fingerprinting, iris scanning, face recognition, and DNA testing — that can measure and store unique biological features to provide stable identifications of people across space and time. It boasts a collection of 2 percent of the world population’s identifiers. ICE and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services already use biometrics to track visa applicants, as well as those that are detained. This has led some to wonder why the government, if it has been fingerprinting families together, would not use such prints as a means to reunify difficult cases, especially those involving pre-verbal children.

The Intercept spoke to a dozen immigration attorneys, all of whom were currently unsure — based on the information they had received — whether immigration officials had been fingerprinting children and parents together before separating them. Falcon noted that authorities have been “booking these children as if they’re in jail” and that the mugshots taken could technically be used for facial recognition.

For the last several years, the DHS has invested in the development of portable Rapid DNA machines, which can test maternity and paternity in under an hour, anywhere in the field. The department has sold Rapid DNA to lawmakers as a tool to test kinship fraud, even though, according to Customs and Border Protection, only 148 out of 59,113 apprehensions of families entering the U.S. involved such fraud.

Over the last two decades, the Department of Homeland Security has invested billions of dollars in biometric tools — fingerprinting, iris scanning, face recognition, and DNA testing.

Sara Katsanis, a genomics expert at Duke University, points out that the same technology could technically be used for the exact purposes that advocates are now calling for, given that the DHS already has authority to collect DNA from anyone it detains. “Rapid DNA has been available for a long time and was developed for child trafficking detection. So why has it not been implemented into practice?” she asked. Still, she agrees with other advocates that it would be preferable to have nongovernmental entities, who are better equipped to protect privacy, collecting information, and that using DNA as an immigration tool “remains troubling” without proper regulatory and legislative guidelines for collecting, storing, and disseminating genetic information. The DHS did not immediately respond to questions about whether it was fingerprinting families and if it had plans to use its own biometrics collections to reunite them.

As several immigration attorneys noted, positive use cases are unlikely. In fact, biometric collection has already been used by the Trump administration in a way that discourages family reunification. Since April, the ORR has agreed to share personal information about those who take custody of unaccompanied children with ICE. Biometric data will be collected from all sponsors, and any other adult living in the household, and their immigration status and criminal history will also be examined by ICE. There is no guarantee that the data will not be used for tracking and deportation. “With regards to sharing information between ORR and ICE, this could have a similar practical effect of keeping families apart and it’s indirect enough that it’s not going to create much of a headline,” a worker at an ORR shelter, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Intercept. Sponsors of undocumented children are often undocumented, the worker added. “I want to make sure people know about this and that it could be just as bad. I’m really hoping to convey that this is a new form of family separation.”

Gonzalez, the biometrics expert at Mijente, explains that the last thing needed is expanded government collection. “We’re seeing profiteering from this policy, not only from the private prisons and contractors, but also from data, biometrics, and tech companies,” she said. “Once you get private contractors who can have private databases of biometric information, it’s going to be exploited and misused and harm the basic constitutional rights of everyone in this country.”

Top photo: A rendering of an autoradiogram of DNA sequences.

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