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DNA testing for immigration and family reunification?

During the past decade, immigrants accounted for 47% of the increase in the US workforce and 70% in Europe. Family reunification is one of the main forms of immigration in many countries. However, in recent times, immigration has become increasingly regulated with many countries encouraging stricter vetting measures. In this climate, countries’ laws and policies applicable to family reunification seek a balance between an individual’s right to a family life and a country’s right to control the influx of immigrants. The use of DNA testing (using blood samples or buccal swabs collected from the sponsor and each of the applicants) has been included in the family reunifications processes to help confirm a biological link between the sponsor and the applicants in at least 21 countries including Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the USA. As numerous jurisdictions use DNA testing in their family reunification processes, can the use of DNA testing help achieve a better balance between promoting family reunification and enabling better control of the immigration demands?

On the one hand, given that the test results are considered very accurate, reliable, and scientifically valid, the use of this test has been deemed to have a number of benefits. It is viewed as helpful for immigrants whose birth or baptismal certificates are unavailable, non-existent, or unreliable. It is deemed to add neutrality to the migratory process, as the decision becomes less discretionary than if it solely depended on the immigration officer’s interpretation of the supportive documentation. It is also considered to make the process more efficient, faster, and cheaper, because the results can be self-explanatory. Therefore, it is not necessary for immigrants to hire lawyers or for the government to train its immigration officers to be able to properly interpret the supporting evidence or to interview the potential immigrants or for either of them to wait long periods of time for all of the above to be concluded. Lastly, it is considered helpful to prevent fraud, human trafficking, and misuse of the process, as potential immigrants who know they do not have a true familial link may be discouraged from initiating the process.

On the other hand, there are criticisms based on legal, social, and ethical concerns raised not by the test itself, but by the way it is implemented. The test is usually “suggested” in cases where documents are unavailable or unreliable (mainly in cases of potential immigrants from a specific list of countries of Africa, Asia, or Latin America), done in accredited laboratories, and paid by the immigrant (although in some cases, the government will directly cover or reimburse the costs of the test). Some countries assign such an enormous evidential weight to the test that a negative result or a refusal to undergo the test would very likely lead to the rejection of the application.

Can the use of DNA testing help achieve a better balance between promoting family reunification and enabling better control of the immigration demands?

Sociologically, the definition of “family” based solely on a biological link (the result of a DNA test), disregards any other physical, psychological, social, intellectual, or spiritual factor or element of a relationship between two family members. In this sense, the requirement of DNA testing in these terms can disrupt immigrants’ family lives and consequently, parents’ care of their children; their emotional well-being; personality; identity; social and affective skills; integration to the host country; and even their work/school performance. The latter could have a negative impact on the host country’s economy, as immigrants constitute an important part of the world’s workforce.

There are various ethical concerns with the use of DNA testing in family reunification processes. Firstly, it is problematic that the majority of the countries using DNA testing in their family reunification processes neglect to provide genetic counseling services prior to or after the immigrants undergo the test. Additionally, signatories to the Prüm Convention store and share the information collected from the migratory process with the other signatories to combat terrorism, cross-border crime, and illegal migration without the immigrants’ consent. Moreover, their state of vulnerability while applying for family reunification diminishes their autonomous consent to undergo the test. Finally, their informed consent can be violated because they lack the power to prevent secondary uses of their genetic information.

Legally, there are concerns about issues of discrimination based on country or origin, religion (some religions do not allow forms of this test), socio-economic class (the cost per applicant is between $230 and $1250), non-traditional models of families (e.g. LGBT, blended, extended, or reproductively assisted families, and those that include orphans), and unwed parents (it is more frequent for unwed parents to be suggested to undergo the test). Furthermore, nationals’ privacy and dignity are better protected and their familial relationships are less scrutinized than those of foreigners.

Countries have a sovereign right to control their immigration regulations and policies, and as discussed, DNA testing can be useful in protecting this right. The consistency in the benefits of families as the optimal foundation for physical and emotional well-being has even resulted in international agencies and instruments upholding a human right to a family. However, families are formed and shaped by many factors, complexities, and dynamics that DNA is incapable of fully capturing. Immigration laws, regulations, policies, and practices have to be reasonable, justifiable, and proportional to principles of equality, inclusiveness, efficiency, human dignity, and respect for more pluralistic concepts of family. Specifically, it would be beneficial if countries truly maintained the use of the DNA testing as a “last resort” for cases where it is appropriate/necessary to suggest it, preserved an inclusive concept of family, and provided immigrants with as much information as possible regarding the test and its potential outcomes.

Featured image credit: Puzzle by qimono. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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