Local scientists hope to use DNA to reunite families separated at the border

Medical Watch

Science and medicine are now being used to combat a political and humanitarian crisis. It’s all about DNA.

Doctors at Lurie Children’s have made a proposal to reunite migrant families separated at the border. Much like consumers use DNA kits to find lost family members, this program seeks to reunite mothers and fathers with their lost children. 

Heart wrenching images have been shown for year – children crying as their parents hope to give them a bright future in the U.S. but instead see darkness without them.

Sara Katsanis is a research assistant professor at Northwestern Medicine and policy research on application of genetics in society.

“A whole lot of separations over several months in 2018, and many of those families have remained separated since then,” she said. “And is has been very difficult to track down find and reunify. … For many years when migrant families crossed the US – Mexico border, they might face separation if there is some suspicion of human trafficking or endangerment of the child. In 2017 and 2018 that policy shifted to broaden the scope of separations.”

Regardless of political affiliation or views, the researchers know science can solve the most basic problem – reunification.

“They might have had parents come forward and the child has been lost in the system, perhaps they ran away, perhaps they have been misplaced, we don’t know,” Katsanis said.

In a lawsuit filed in southern California against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, plaintiffs identified 391 children in the system without their parents. For 277 of them, the parents were removed from the U.S.. Officials are searching for the parents of 100 more, believed to be in the U.S. And for 14 children there is no known whereabouts or contact for their parents.

“So in the last several months we have put our heads together with human rights scholars and physicians and people working with migrant families to talk about what is the best approach for using DNA data,” Katsanis said. “We don’t think it should not be used just because of fears of the misuse of data because we know it can be protected just as data is protected in medical circumstances, in clinical trials, and we know it should be handled outside of the government.”

The key is an outside organization to guard the database.

“As those matches come forward, the organizations working with each of those parties can be connected,” Katsanis said.  

It’s a marriage of technology and heart more than a dozen scientists writing in the journal science hope will enhance lives.

“There is a lot of fear about data people have a knee-jerk reaction. There’s concern that genetic info might be used against them, maybe it will be stored or used in the future or searched for criminal case,” Katsanis said. “But we can build that infrastructure at the international level to protect that data and that is what we are trying to come up with now.”

Whether the families choose to reunite is separate from the genetic information. But if it’s available, it’s a tool they could potentially use even decades later.

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