Framing the utility and potential pitfalls of relationship and identity DNA testing across United States immigration contexts

Diana Madden, Brianna A. Baker, Jennifer K. Wagner, Sara H. Katsanis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Genetic information is increasingly used at US border entry points, but the use of DNA in immigration contexts is not new. DNA testing for verification of identity or relationships for visa and asylum petitions began in the 1980s. Long-standing applications demonstrate both the utility and pitfalls of DNA testing in immigration contexts. Some of these pitfalls are shared with health-related contexts of DNA testing, but the power of government officials to deny immigration benefits, separate families, or make accusations of fraud among a vulnerable population elevates the potential harms, including stigmatization, discrimination, and coerced consent. We conducted semi-structured interviews with professional stakeholders on their understandings of the process of DNA testing, opinions on the role of DNA testing in immigration, and experiences with DNA applications in immigration. From the 22 interviews, we sourced 21 case examples involving DNA testing and supplemented these with 10 case examples provided by the study team. The 31 case examples capture instances of DNA testing for relationship or identity across five immigration contexts. Using the case examples, we developed three overarching utilities and six overarching pitfalls of DNA testing that apply across these immigration contexts. Our framework allows long-standing applications of DNA testing in immigration to inform stakeholders’ approaches to applications in new contexts. As the use of DNA data in immigration contexts expands, its implementation should recognize the utility of DNA data to both migrants and government while guarding against pitfalls that could undermine the human rights and dignity of a vulnerable population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100060
JournalHuman Genetics and Genomics Advances
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 13 2022


  • ELSI
  • Immigration
  • STRs
  • ethics
  • family unity
  • identity DNA testing
  • kinship
  • relationship DNA testing
  • vulnerable populations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Genetics(clinical)


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