The remains of yet another migrant were reported recently in Brooks County, Texas, a county bordering Mexico. That was the 17th dead body found in that county in the first two months of 2015. Sadly, that’s not really news. Hundreds of undocumented migrants are found dead along the southern U.S. border each year, and many are buried without identification. What is surprising is that most are from Central America – not Mexico.
Last year, more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Central America crossed into the U.S. According to last week’s federal Government Accountability Office report, the children migrate north because of violence and economic concerns in their home countries and to reunify with family members already in the United States.
But the journey is treacherous, and some migrants don’t make it – hence the 400 dead bodies found along our border each year. When a migrant doesn’t survive, tracing an identity is not simple. Back home, the disappearance is a nightmare for families who have no idea whether their loved one is alive or dead. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights reports that relatives of missing migrants contact dozens of agencies in hopes of finding family members, often at great cost.
On the U.S. side, authorities struggle to identify the body, with DNA being one of the last considerations. While DNA testing seems routine on TV crime shows, in reality it’s expensive to run DNA tests and, even if you can, you need to compare results with people in a database. It is challenging enough to collect DNA from relatives of missing Americans, much less to track down relatives in distant villages in Central America. Without an international DNA database, processing DNA from unidentified migrants is not cost-effective, especially for forensic agencies and nongovernmental organizations already strapped for funds.
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Just because it’s hard, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Every human being has a right to an identity, even after death. Knowing where our loved ones are and whether they are safe are key values of a civil society.
An infrastructure exists to conduct this kind of DNA testing, and there is proven technology for developing secure international DNA databanks. Moreover, scores of well-intentioned NGOs already are working with migrant families to reunify families. What we don’t have is a coordinated effort to bring advocate groups together on behalf of victims and families. Too many groups are expending resources to track individuals case-by-case rather than working together, and with forensic agencies, to develop a better system that respects the privacy rights of victims and families.
Another reason to develop a humanitarian DNA system for migrant families
is the large numbers of unaccompanied children who enter the U.S. each year and whose safety we are obliged to protect. As we saw this past year, authorities have been struggling to house, screen, process and repatriate thousands of children from Central America. The sheer volume means we risk sending some of them back to situations where they will be exploited or harmed. DNA testing could prevent them from being handed over to a trafficker pretending to be a parent or uncle. A DNA system also would increase the odds of connecting detained migrant children with families in the U.S. – or indeed of identifying them if they turn up dead in a desert.
Definitions of “family” vary among cultures, so no decision to repatriate should be based solely on biological relations. The best interests of a child should supersede all other factors. Importantly, DNA and personal information collected for humanitarian purposes should be protected from secondary use by law enforcement. It is possible to protect individuals at risk of exploitation without compromising legitimate legal processes.
Working together, NGOs, government and law enforcement can bring more families together and provide answers to more families wondering what has happened to their sons and daughters. So let’s catalogue DNA from relatives of the missing, here and across the border. Let’s catalog DNA from human remains before they are buried. Let’s develop humanitarian-rooted processes to confirm claimed relationships before we place children with traffickers.
Every three days, we discover another body in Brooks County, Texas. Every day, 137 children from Central America turn themselves in to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. These numbers add up to a human rights crisis that requires a humanitarian response. DNA is just one biometric tool, but it is a powerful one. We should be using it for humanitarian purposes to identify the dead and protect thousands of children in our trust.
Sara Huston Katsanis, who worked previously as a DNA analyst in a forensic laboratory, is an instructor and genetics policy researcher in the Science & Society initiative at Duke University.