DNA Testing and Refugee Family Reunification
Guilty Until Proven Family
In 2008, the US Department of State suspended the Priority Three (P3) Refugee Family Resettlement Program for asylum seekers from Africa. Through the P3 program, citizenship was granted for the parents, spouses, and unmarried children under 21 of resettled refugees. The program primarily benefited African asylum seekers. In the years preceding the suspension, the Department of State reports that Africans submitted 95% of P3 applications (primarily Somalis, Ethiopians and Liberians). Between October 2003 and February 2008, the P3 program reunited 36,000 Africans with their resettled family members.
And then it was stopped.
In February 2008, two branches of the US government joined forces to assess the use of DNA testing as documentary proof of family relationship, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Population, Migration and Refugees (PRM) of the Department of State. The location of their pilot site was Nairobi, Kenya. In Nairobi, 500 refugees were “asked” to provide a DNA sample. After this initial phase, the testing expanded to involve 3,000 refugees in Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Guinea, Gambia and Cote d’Ivoire.
The pilot operated on the assumption of “guilty until proven family.” Anything other than DNA proof of relationship was recorded as fraud. Refusal to test was recorded as fraud. On a petition with multiple family members, if one person refused, did not show up for, or failed the test, then the entire petition was recorded as fraud. Shockingly, the “anchor” (with whom the applicants desired to reunite) was never tested. Only the relationships between individuals on the application were investigated. By the time the pilot phase ended, reports of fraud soared beyond 80% of family reunification claims. And, on this basis, the P3 program that facilitated reunification of African refugees with their families was suspended.
If, as William James writes in Pragmatism, we create what truths we register in order to serve our own purposes, what truths are extracted by genetic technologies? What preliminary faith in their power influences their reception as objective fact? In this context, DNA technology is used to draw out the truth of who African asylum seekers “really are” as they approach the US for residence. As DNA testing increasingly becomes the standard by which border security officials investigate kinship claims, what makes a family legitimate will be determined by the social proscriptions of the receiving community. And yet, genetic testimony, as I shall discuss, often conceals as much as it reveals. DNA may be a biologically useful time capsule, but it is not a useful time capsule for the relationships we evolve throughout our lives.
What Makes a Family Legitimate?
What constitutes a family is not necessarily portable across borders. Refugees are forced to conform their definition of family, and, thus their very life stories, to the social norms of their receiving community. We should not confuse the neutrality of DNA as a hereditary material with the neutrality of those who collect, process and interpret it. Far from a value-neutral technology, DNA testing for family reunification reveals an allegiance to a particular social universe, and often conceals the social reality of the refugee’s lived experience.
An especially lucid example of this claim is provided by a refugee case manager who remarked that what makes a family legitimate is always determined by the receiving community and, thus, polygamous families are never resettled. Given the testing protocol of the pilot project (testing the genetic relationship between applicants, but not between the applicant and anchor), one readily can imagine how a test might conclude that a mother, as a primary applicant, may not share DNA with her child. In such a case, the entire application, and their relationship, would be officially recorded as fraud.
Michael D Jackson’s ethnographic work in Sierra Leone is helpful here, as he gives us insight into levirate and sororal marriage among the Kuranko. In levirate marriage, widows marry the brother of the deceased husband; in sororal marriage, widowers (or husbands of infertile women) marry the sister of the deceased (or infertile) wife. Such practices have also been part of the lives of Somalis under Xeer customary law, the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani of Nigeria, and the Maragoli of Kenya. One’s genetic identification may tell us little about his or her identity, whom he or she has loved, or, as Bobby Kennedy said once about the GDP, it reveals everything except that which makes life worth living.
Family is not simply genetic or socially proscribed, but also existentially evolved, especially for refugees who have spent years, if not decades, in camps. An interviewer with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees told me stories about parents who did not want to distinguish between their biological and adopted, often war-orphaned, children. Given that the verification interview takes place in front of the children, avoiding this distinction may have little to do with what security officials cruelly call fraud or abuse. Although the interview process seeks to determine the “worst of the worst,” as one case manager starkly put it, the DNA testing methodology overlooks that those who survive often do not survive unscathed.
The Department of State maintains that the DNA tests are used in coordination with traditional interviewing techniques, including linguistic tests. However, we should be cautious when scientific technology is endorsed as one among many equal weights upon the balance of justice. The sheer volume of refugee applications reveals the staggering power that DNA technology possesses as a potentially objective way to arbitrate asylum claims. In the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, an estimated 465,000 refugees currently live in a space designed for 90,000. At the time of this writing, nearly 1,300 people arrive daily. Although the Bureau of Population, Migration and Refugees prides itself on its expedited resettlement of those whose lives are at serious risk, moving all people out of harm’s way is neither possible nor intended. Based on the FY 2011 criteria, the US could resettle only eleven days worth of arrivals at Dadaab. When available, the P3 program was not frustrated by this fiscal year ceiling.
For security officials, the DNA test is an attractive method of quantifying and eliminating fraud and abuse (and obeying the proposed refugee quota for the fiscal year). For caseworkers and interviewers, the DNA test frees one up from feelings of overwhelming responsibility and guilt stemming from their inability to resettle each of the worthy. But for the refugees themselves, the effect is a further widening of the divide between the world in which they are forced to live and a world of their own making. Indeed, if the refugee signifies, by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, a person threatened by persecution, then we must ask if our resettlement efforts return power to their lives, or insert them into new narratives of domination and disregard.
We should be alarmed when state investigations blot out existential evolutions of family. In the suspension of refugee family reunification, what we have is the insertion of DNA into a process that turns kinship into an issue of mere legality. In his Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Edward Said calls the state of exile an “unhealable rift” between the “self and its true home.” To what home do genetic tracks lead us? When DNA testing serves as state identification, what rift is created between the truth of one’s life and what can be extracted from one’s blood? What should we be searching for when we want to know who a person truly is?
Jason Silverstein is a PhD student in the department of anthropology at Harvard University. He works for Transition Magazine at the WEB Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. He can be reached at jsilverstein [at]mail.harvard.edu or http://scholar.harvard.edu/silverstein.