DNA Testing in Immigration Control

DNA Testing
Font Size:

Scholar cautions against the increasing use of biometric testing by immigration authorities.

Font Size:

U.S. immigration authorities have conducted rapid DNA tests on migrants at the border with Mexico to identify fraudulent claims around family ties in immigration proceedings. But has the introduction of DNA tests at the border harmed migrants?

In a recent article, Tally Kritzman-Amir, a professor of sociology and law, argues that they do. She explains that DNA collection conducted by immigration authorities endangers migrants and contributes to their marginalization.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed expanding federal agencies’ power to DNA test immigrants. Today, DHS employs rapid DNA tests to determine if a family unit shares a “bona fide parent-child relationship.”

When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel identify a suspected fraudulent family unit, an ICE officer may request rapid DNA testing from the adult member of that family unit. After obtaining consent, DNA samples are taken from the adult and claimed child. Although rapid DNA testing is voluntary, failure to submit to a rapid DNA test may be taken into account when ICE assesses the validity of the claimed parent-child relationship.

According to Kritzman-Amir, DNA tests embody a new and oppressive attempt to govern migrants through their bodies at the subcellular level. By creating a digital record of DNA testing, immigration authorities risk disclosing private information to non-state third parties, contribute to racist practices in immigration law, and disregard immigrants’ lived experiences, Kritzman-Amir argues.

For Kritzman-Amir, the collection and storage of DNA necessarily triggers privacy concerns. Unlike other kinds of biometric data such as fingerprints, iris scans, and facial scans, DNA testing is far more biologically invasive. In addition, Kritzman-Amir argues that the examination of DNA test results requires biotechnological expertise which governments often cannot provide in-house and must outsource to private laboratories. In turn, the privatization of DNA testing contributes to the risk of “functional creep”—the potential for the use of a migrant’s biological data for purposes other than immigration proceedings—such as surveillance or criminalization.

Furthermore, Kritzman-Amir argues that the chances of people of color’s DNA being tested rise in countries engaging in the practice. For example, immigration authorities are more likely to request a DNA test in certain types of immigration proceedings, including asylum and family reunification, in which people of color are overrepresented.

Some commentators would disagree with Kritzman-Amir. They argue that DNA tests empower migrants who cannot prove a country of origin. The absence of proof of a migrant’s country of origin can significantly disadvantage an applicant when applying for citizenship, refugee, or asylum status. Consequently, supporters of DNA testing argue that it alleviates the need for additional interviews and heightened scrutiny as well as exposure to an immigration official’s potentially unfair prejudices toward a migrant’s racial or ethnic background, achieving a level of scientific neutrality that evades human bias and error.

Yet for Kritzman-Amir, DNA testing has failed to achieve the level of scientific neutrality that its supporters describe. Rather, she argues that the discretionary vetting process, in which immigration authorities recommend who should receive a DNA test, entrenches pre-existing racism embedded inside immigration law.

Beyond issues of privacy and racism, Kritzman-Amir maintains that DNA tests emphasize a hyper-individualistic view of immigrants that discounts their lived experiences, which are often essential to achieving successful visa, refugee, and asylum claims. DNA tests provide a view of immigrants at the subcellular level, allowing officers to disregard migrants’ personal relationships and perspectives that offer greater context into their lives.

For Kritzman-Amir, family reunification proceedings best illustrate the hyper-individualism inherent in DNA testing. By focusing on DNA tests to prove family ties, immigration authorities endorse a biological conception of family that stands in sharp contrast to a sociological understanding of family that extends beyond blood ties. As a result, DNA tests expose migrant families to heightened emotional risks, such as potentially discovering a lack of biological kinship.

For example, when four boys applied for U.S. citizenship based upon the citizenship of their father, Isaac Owusu, immigration authorities requested DNA tests to prove family relations. DNA testing revealed, however, that Owusu was only biologically related to his eldest son. U.S. immigration authorities then denied visas to Owusu’s other sons. For Kritzman-Amir, the case of the Owusu family provides a telling example of the heartbreaking consequences of relying too stringently on DNA testing and discounting the lived experiences of immigrants.

Kritzman-Amir maintains that the DNA testing of immigrants poses serious risks to the privacy of immigrants and the legitimacy of immigration proceedings. The threat of these consequences is exacerbated by the disproportionate harm DNA testing can impose on marginalized communities. She emphasizes that the racism and hyper-individualism that she sees associated with DNA tests diminish the identities and self-determination of immigrants. Rather than depend upon the veneer of scientific neutrality, Kritzman-Amir argues that immigration agencies should interrogate the potentially harmful effects of DNA testing.