Building Genetic Walls
“People lose sense of empathy and humanity,” she tells me, but not at first. At first, she wants me to know she was good once. She wants me to know she was good before she became an interviewer for the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, when she spent the summers as a volunteer advocate in the Congo and then worked at a small immigration law firm in Chicago. She wants me to know she was good until good was no longer a choice. And her choice to no longer be good was not a choice to be bad, but a choice to be neutral. “These jobs are so difficult,” she says to me, “You can’t empathize too much with people. Or it will destroy you. You build up these walls and say so and so is not deserving.”
In 2008, a new way to say so and so is not deserving emerged: the DNA test. In February 2008, the Departments of State and Homeland Security introduced DNA testing to detect lies in applications for family reunification. One month later, the Department of State reported rates of fraud in greater than 80% of applications and suspended refugee family reunification. Now, the program is poised to resume, but not without “a DNA relationship testing component.”
This is a story about who decides what counts as family, and how. It is a story about accountability, and how people avoid accountability by turning others into frauds, and how it is easier to do harm to bad people than good. And, ultimately, it is a story about how a modern method to detect distrust reveals more about the testers than the tested – and sets free everyone, except those who need protection.
An Obsession with Fraud and Abuse
“We’re looking for ways to keep people out,” the interviewer says, “there is an obsession with fraud and abuse.” It did not take long for her to learn about this obsession, the distrust of refugees making claims for resettlement. It was summer and she was signed up for four months, working with urban refugee populations from the Congo and Mogadishu. During her first lunch at the UN compound in Kampala, Uganda, one protection interviewer told her, “Watch for the Congolese, they are fibbers. They don’t tell the truth.” In Kampala, she came to learn, the interviewers believed the refugees learned what they were looking for, and learned how to navigate the system, because refugee policy is generally restrictive and success stories circulate throughout the camps. Because the policy is restrictive, the interviewers start to see the most vulnerable not as the most worthy but as the most crafty, the most scarred as the most savvy, and traumatic stories as clever tricks to manipulate the process.
“At the end of the day, 800 to 1000 are resettled for every 200,000 people. It is an arbitrary process. Many of the women from Congo said they were raped. I’m not certain that 100% is accurate, but I believe that is accurate from a large number. Based on that criteria, you should resettle all of them.”
“It is a superficial and hurried process,” she continued.
“Anything else I should know about?” she asks rhetorically. “Tortured, raped, I checked the box and sent them on their way. It was very cursory. I wonder what was done with all that data.”
“Here’s what I want to know,” I say. “What makes someone the most vulnerable, or more vulnerable than someone else? How can you tell if a story is legitimate?”
“There is a UNHCR handbook that lists a set of criteria for resettlement. There are nine criteria, several medical issues, survivors of torture, rape was always an issue. I interviewed people who I thought were not telling the truth and I interviewed people who I was certain were and had some of the most horrific stories. At the beginning, I spent four hours with a woman who told me the most horrific story that I ever heard and went home and cried for four hours, a traumatic experience for me. I often had a really sick feeling. At least in the first part, I felt I could recommend them for resettlement and there was something that I could offer them.”
“And all of this was mediated through a translator?”
“I always had a translator with me. They would shake their heads to say stories were not true. Here I was making a decision that one or another would influence the rest of the life of this person and it felt like too much responsibility. And we do not have time for re-interviews.”
The Weak and the Powerless
“What about DNA testing to determine family relationship?” I ask.
“In general, I think this idea of accepting only biological sons, daughters, is a very Northern or Western construct, because generally speaking, from what I’ve observed, that’s not how they see themselves. In terms of DNA, if we are trying to fit them into this mold, then it makes sense. But it isn’t how they actually live.”
Ultimately, the attractiveness of DNA tests to assess family claims is not merely about family structures or kinship, or if family is defined by blood or circumstance. It is also about accountability. Caseworkers and interviewers, such as this woman, are often ignited by a desire to stand with the weak, redeem the sufferings of the powerless, and champion those without voice or advocate. Their roles, however, require that they determine what stories are legitimate and refuse more applications than they accept. If you ask them, they feel a conflict between the responsibility to both rescue the worthy and dismiss the deceitful.
The DNA test – as an objective, external, and scientific measure of ‘truth’ – thus frees interviewers to be neutral. What we have is a struggle with deep feelings of accountability for other lives. The weak and the powerless are not only the refugees, who have lost their homeland and family members, and find themselves inserted into new narratives of disregard. The weak and the powerless are also how the caseworkers and interviewers imagine themselves.
“Asylum officers become very hardened to stories,” she says to me, but not at first. “The longer that you are there, the more distrustful you become.” But this isn’t the truth, or not the whole truth, and maybe it never is, or can be. She didn’t become hardened to stories because of the stories. She became hardened to the stories, because she was supposed to become hardened to them. She learned not to trust during her first lunch, she was not supposed to empathize too much, or else it would destroy her. Objective tests free the judges, but they do not always free the judged.
Jason Silverstein studies science, race, and society as a PhD student in the department of Anthropology at Harvard. He works for the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Transition Magazine at the WEB Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. He can be reached via http://scholar.harvard.edu/silverstein and followed on twitter at @jason_reads.