It did not take long for people look to DNA as a solution for reuniting families separated at the border.
First, congresswoman Jackie Speier suggested that the DNA-testing company 23andMe help find separated parents and children. 23andMe quickly responded, offering to donate kits. Then on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it is conducting its own DNA tests—in this case, to verify claimed relationships before reuniting families.
The news, both times, was met with swift backlash by immigrant advocates, who worried what the government could do with sensitive genetic data. “They’re essentially solving one civil rights issue with another — it’s a gross violation of human rights,” said Jennifer Falcon, of the immigrants-rights group RAICES on NBC News. “These are minors with no legal guardian to be able to advise on their legal right, not to mention they’re so young how can they consent to their personal information being used in this way?”
HHS officials have said the genetic data will only be used to reunite families, but they have made very few details of the process public. DNA testing for immigrants is not new, points out Sara Katsanis, who studies genetic privacy at Duke. In fact, it has been part of U.S. immigration policy for years. Since 2012, the Priority 3 category of the U.S. refugee program—which reunites family members from designated countries—has required DNA tests to prove genetic family relationships. And in 2014, as the number of unaccompanied children escaping violence from Central America was surging, the Obama administration devised a program that allowed parents in the U.S. to apply for refugee status for their children still in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. They, too, had to take a DNA test first. (The Trump administration ended this program in 2017.)