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Why aren’t we taking DNA instead of children?

Not only is there no justification for taking children away from their families, but there’s a responsible way to vet family members and trace migrants arriving at the U.S. border.

Both Rep. Paul Ryan’s Border Security and Immigration Reform Act and Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s Securing America’s Future Act include DNA testing as a discretionary requirement for issuing visas. This potential policy solution arose in recognition of the risk of immigration fraud.

For instance, in the midst of the 2014 surge of unaccompanied Central American minors, a group of eight teenagers were placed with human traffickers on an egg farm in Ohio. Had DNA been used to vet the sponsors of these children, perhaps this could have been avoided.

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Also, Homeland Security has recorded hundreds of cases this year of migrants posing as families to improve their chances of gaining asylum. Verifying relationships using DNA at the border can inform which cases are more likely to be fraudulent.

Part of the justification for the Trump Administration’s abhorrent child-removal policy was this presumption that children are being used as pawns by adult border-crossers. Some of these children might be their own, some might be borrowed and some even might be purchased (trafficked) to pose as family members. Indeed, this latter practice has been reported during the recent and ongoing refugee crises around the world.

While opportunities for fraud and deception exist and should be taken seriously and mitigated, the bad acts of the few cannot excuse the perpetration of human rights abuses against thousands of children and parents.

DNA tests have been used in the U.S. immigration system since the early 1990s. DNA has been collected from immigrant detainees for the criminal databases, CODIS, since 2009. DNA tests have been required since 2012 to verify claimed relationships in the Priority 3 Family Reunification Refugee program. Rapid DNA instruments have been developed to verify family relationships within hours while a family is detained at the border.

The U.S. has the infrastructure, experience and technology to manage a program that could responsibly implement the use of DNA to verify relationships and even track migrants coming into the country.

Proposing DNA as a tool for immigration biometrics remains troubling given the privacy implications of what can be sensitive data and the potential effects on non-traditional families. But implemented with care, regulatory and legislative measures could ensure DNA data is used to supplement documentation, not to lead immigration decisions. For instance, DNA samples could be disposed of rather than kept indefinitely and DNA testing and databasing could be done by a third party rather than by the government.

While we authors do not always agree on the best approaches to using DNA for identification purposes while protecting privacy rights, we do believe that the government’s proposed use at the border is a far better policy than splitting families -- as long as responsible measures are in place.

Let’s be clear: Families were separated and kids held hostage as a legislative ploy, and actual lives have been damaged. This latest sensationalist scheme – marketed as strong enforcement of broken immigration laws – was a desperate attempt to create a divisive issue to influence the mid-term elections.

Let’s identify the most appropriate tools and tailor them to the real purpose at hand, and minimize unnecessary harms in the process. Reduced genetic privacy should not be viewed in a vacuum or as an absolute. There are trade-offs, but the benefits of using DNA to rapidly vet relationships could serve the legitimate interests of national security and migrants’ human rights.

As William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration, said, “Migration is a process, not a problem.” That’s why we need to stand in solidarity with members of our human family seeking asylum at our borders, and demand the United States recalibrate its moral compass and consider ways in which science can be harnessed responsibly.

Sara H. Katsanis is an instructor in Duke University’s Science and Society program. Jennifer K. Wagner is a science policy expert at Geisinger and attorney.

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