Modern Medicine

A lesser-known DNA test that can help reunite immigrant parents with detained children

Key Points
  • Consumer DNA testing companies, including 23andMe and MyHeritage, are offering genetic kits as a way to reunite immigrant parents with detained and separated children at the border.
  • Immigrant rights groups are wary of the privacy risks involved for already vulnerable communities.
  • One DNA testing technology, from Thermo Fisher Scientific's Integen X, could alleviate some of the concerns.

The fight to reunite immigrant families took a genetic twist this week as tensions increased over detained children. The same consumer DNA testing kits that trace ancestry and offer genetic risk assessments were proposed as a way to reunite families separated at the border. But the idea created its own minor furor — for one, the fact that the government would even need DNA tests to match a detained child to a parent. Second, the fear over privacy and security risks.

“We shouldn’t be in this position at all,” said Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine. “The kids should not have to do this genetic backfill.”

Occupants at Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., are seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018.
ACF | HHS | Reuters

After more than 2,700 children were taken from their parents by officials at the border under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance policy,” it became clear that there was no solid system in place to bring families back together.

When immigrant children are separated from families, they are placed in government facilities or foster care while officials try to identify the nearest relative in the United States. But there are suspicions about how carefully these “relatives” are filtered. With facilities overflowing, there are allegations that many children may had been lost in the system or handed to traffickers.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement told Congress in April that of the 7,000 children returned to relatives in fall 2017, it had lost track of 1,475 children. A PBS Frontline investigation called “Trafficked in America” that aired in April also discovered cases of teenagers being released to labor traffickers by the ORR.

DNA testing kits could solve the issue by identifying relatives accurately. Google-backed 23andMe was prompted to offer its genetic-testing service by California Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), joining the same initiative as other genetic companies, such as MyHeritage.

“I continue to be blown away by the outpouring of support from my constituents and companies in my district, including 23andMe,” Speier said in a statement to CNBC.

23andMe and MyHeritage are among the genetic-testing companies donating thousands of kits and working with relevant government and nonprofit organizations to distribute resources. But these companies also provoke fears about privacy and ownership of DNA.

We shouldn’t be in this position at all. The kids should not have to do this genetic backfill.
Arthur Caplan
head of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine

Both RAICES Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project, prominent civil rights groups in the immigration movement, declined DNA kit offers.

“These are already very vulnerable communities, and this would potentially put their privacy at risk,” RAICES spokeswoman Jennifer Falcon told the San Francisco-based national public radio station KQED.

Security concerns are a primary reason for hesitation. Typically, if an individual under the age of 18 wants to provide a DNA sample, authorization by a parent or guardian is required. In this case, because the children cannot find their parents and are considered under the authority of the government, the question of who grants authority and gains access to the information is up in the air.

“There are problems giving it to a commercial testing company. They do recreational genetics,” Caplan said.

MyHeritage recently suffered a hack involving 92 million records. Law-enforcement agencies across the country and State Department and the U.S. military have also begun requesting the results of genetic-testing kits for their own purposes.

Despite the risks, the DNA-testing companies are all promising privacy and claim to be in contact with nonprofit and legal aid organizations to distribute resources as soon as possible.

“Of course we would take all precautions necessary, including any special measures required, to protect the families' privacy,” a 23andMe spokesman told CNBC. “Testing would only be used for reunification efforts and done through the families' attorneys and legal-aid groups to ensure civil rights are protected.”

MyHeritage claims to be following the same trajectory, with the genetic-testing company planning to work with “relevant government and nonprofit organizations” to distribute the resources, according to spokesperson Rafi Mendelsohn.

Rapid testing on site could help reduce privacy risks

There may be a viable alternative, however. Testing company Integen X, cited by Congresswoman Speier, uses a testing technology that potentially eliminates the risk of other DNA testing methods. Integen X is part of Thermo Fisher Scientific and has also offered to donate DNA testing services to help reunite families.

A main risk of DNA kits comes from companies like 23andMe and MyHeritage building business models around detailed ancestry information and genetic risk analysis, which requires the use of offsite equipment. Once individuals' DNA is sent off site, there is a risk of losing the chain of custody, said Rosy Lee, vice president and general manager of the human identification sector of Thermo Fisher.

Thermo Fisher is trying to combat privacy concerns by using a rapid DNA system that only analyzes paternity relationships. The machine produces results in just 90 minutes, which eliminates long wait times and the need to ship to another location to figure out extraneous details, Lee said. The company has said it will donate $1 million worth of rapid DNA analyzers to “support efforts to reunite children and parents recently separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.”

The analyzers are called the RapidHIT system, a 50-pound instrument that analyzes the contents of a cheek swab in a cartridge. The instrument can be set up in the field in a matter of minutes, and the cartridge can be destroyed on-site or handed back to the individual. The data is then sent to another authorized figure manning a software hub, which can be set up right next to the instrument.

The 50-pound piece of equipment is not the only alternative to the more popular consumer DNA testing kits. Academic testing supervised by an oversight group would also work, Caplan said. Picking an academic health center near Texas, for example, would protect the samples analyzed and could provide necessary counseling for many of the children, according to Caplan.

“We’re here because we realize we have a technology that can quickly match children with their parents,” Lee said. “For us it was just a no-brainer.”

Caplan said the rise of the DNA testing technology belies a larger point about the dialogue medical experts are now being forced to engage in: immigration has succumbed to the drastic — and in his view unacceptable — measure of using genetics.