How a DNA database can reunite migrant families

President Biden announced formation of a task force to reunite the migrant children separated from their families in 2018. Given his call for unity in his inaugural address, this effort to reunify families is an  important place to start.  

According to the Department of Justice, former President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy  caused the separation of at least 3,000 migrant children from their accompanying adults. While some family separations were documented and traced through the U.S. government agencies, others were poorly tracked. Reports in late October 2020 revealed 545 children remained disconnected from their deported adult relatives.  

Some of the children are in foster homes, perhaps secretly communicating with their deported relatives but perhaps not. Some of the children might themselves be adults now and others might have run away from their American substitute families. Some of the children were pre-verbal at the time of separation — too young to remember their families and unaware of their plight.  

Accounting for each child and attempting to locate the deported family members in distant countries has been a tireless effort by non-profit civil rights groups and migrant advocacy organizations around the world. It is an imperative that the new leadership of the United States take swift action to stop the trauma that compounds each and every day these children are kept apart from their families.  

Over several months, human rights scholars, activists and genetics experts have been developing a strategy to help reconnect children with their deported parents. The strategy adopts an approach proven to work well for disaster victim identifications used, for example, following a fatal plane crash or during the  disastrous California wildfires. 

The plan involves DNA data comparisons and consent processes outside of government control to protect the identities of the migrant families.  

We (and our colleagues) propose the following: 

  • a database be formed by an intergovernmental third party (outside of the reach of any governments, similar to the International Commission on Missing Persons) to manage anonymous DNA data storage and comparisons for relatives; 
  • DNA swabs be collected (possibly by non-profit advocacy organizations or the International Committee of the Red Cross) from relatives in Central America; 
  • DNA swabs from separated children in the United States (perhaps by the children’s immigration attorneys or a nonprofit organization) be collected; 
  • DNA swabs be analyzed by rapid DNA technologies to enable direct analysis and transfer of data to the database without going through governmental laboratories and to enable analysis within Central America for parental samples; 
  • DNA swabs be anonymized by the collecting organization (the nonprofit or attorney) to disconnect names from the resulting data; and that consent records be maintained by these organizations; 
  • that DNA database comparisons (by the intergovernmental third party) resulting in genetic relationships be communicated to the collecting organizations; and 
  • corresponding family members be reunified with their children with the assistance of trauma-experienced advocates.  

Most families are biological, but some are not. For this reason, DNA data will not always be sufficient  evidence for which children were separated from which families. However, DNA is almost certainly the most expeditious tool for reconnecting the majority of families. By establishing a database of parents and a database of children, we can prioritize connection of family units that are identified through DNA data.  

This is an important contrast to the approach in 2018 to use one-to-one DNA testing on individual families prior to reunification or to verify the relationships. It is comprehensive and will accelerate matching of children to their families quickly and without government involvement in the testing to avoid the mistrust that has been earned by the federal government. 

Using a database approach does not preclude those families without a biological tie from using other methods as evidence of their family ties but will cover the overwhelming majority of children living in the United States separated from their  loved ones. 

Indeed, DNA testing might not be necessary for many children and parents who will recognize one  another, but it will certainly be valuable for verifying the biological relationships for advocates and  authorities making decisions about reunifications and remedies for the suffering families. Regardless of  the DNA data utility for these two purposes, documenting the relationships and preserving that evidence  to enable the prosecution of those responsible for human rights law violations is essential and should  begin now.  

The strategy is applicable for the stolen, separated families in the United States as well as those families  separated and displaced due to other events elsewhere in the world.  

Let us act now to reconnect the separated families and demonstrate the renewed commitment of the United States to advance human rights.  

Sara H. Katsanis, Michael J. Stebbins, and Jennifer K. Wagner are genetics and ethics policy experts, working alongside scholars as part of the Project545 Working Group. Katsanis is faculty at Northwestern University and Lurie Children’s Hospital. Stebbins is president or Science Advisors LLC. Wagner is faculty at Geisinger in the Center for Translational Bioethics and Health Care Policy. The comments herein are our own and not reflections of our professional affiliations.

Tags Biology Biotechnology DNA DNA database Donald Trump Forensic genetics Genetics Joe Biden President Trump's zero tolerance policy Trump administration family separation policy United States Department of Homeland Security

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