DNA testing could help reunite families separated at U.S. border

There is a way to solve the plight of the child immigrants forcibly separated from their parents, which evokes horrors from less than a century ago and harms our country’s honor and conscience along with the children. Damage is being done each day this offense against human compassion is prolonged.

Homeland Security says it knows where the all the children are, but, given the images on the news reports, that seems untrustworthy. A callous chaos has been created. So how do we get the children who have been separated back to their parents?

Ironically, the only way this outrage can be partially assuaged is by the science that affirms that we are all very close — but each is a little different from everyone else. That science is the sequencing of the human genome. Americans must rush to employ individual DNA differences to reunite children and parents.

The fastest approach will be to focus on the children first. We must move quickly to do buccal swab DNA sequencing on every child in every holding and give each individual separated child — reportedly as many as 6,000 — an identification number. Of course, the need to number each individual is a horrible memory of the past, but at least here it is part of reparation.

Using this, we must establish a children’s registry with their location and require that change of location be reported and recorded as part of the child’s identification number. Additional info — name, date entered U.S. — will be included when possible, but for many children these may be uncertain. Then, as a family inquires, at least one parent can have their buccal swab DNA sequencing done and assigned a reference number, and the registry searched for the child’s DNA that most closely matches.

This idea has other proponents, including Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, who’s called on genetic testing company 23andMe to help, according to a report from BuzzFeed. 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki said on Twitter that the company is willing to help but is awaiting direction “to see the best way to follow up and make it happen.”

Contracting the DNA sequencing with a private firm might cost more than having our government do it, however. The Department of Health and Human Services has legal responsibility over the separated children, and if the National Institutes of Health (directed by Francis Collins, famous, along with Craig Venter, for first sequencing the human genome) took it on, it would go fast. And none of this would be prohibitively expensive. One way or the other, it is critically urgent to just get every helpless separated child’s DNA pattern registered as the first step.

Once this simple principle for identity is established, the logistical problems begin. There would need to be an understanding that those responsible for the children could give consent for the DNA testing of those children. A national ruling could run into too much opposition to allow quick implementation, although legalistic conservative libertarians emphasizing freedom and individual rights should have been rendered impotent by their initial cowardice in supporting the administration’s policy of separating families. Besides, reticence about privacy concerns is trumped by the need for speed to mitigate the children’s developmental damage.

Getting the families together after the match would be another problem. A fast track for younger kids — those under 5 years old perhaps — and a chance for parents and children to talk on the phone, with a hope of reunion ASAP, would change this picture wonderfully. Shenanigans or honest mistakes might be minimized by a quick confirmatory sequencing at the time of reunion.

Perhaps this operation could help to diminish the scar that will be left on the worthy ideals in the history of our country.

Dr. James Burdick (tasp@nearhorizonspub.com) is a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine and author of “Talking About Single Payer.”

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