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DNA Testing To Bring Together Separated Families

Thermo Fisher Scientific has offered to donate $1 million worth of its rapid test technology to help reunite families

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An immigrant child looks out from a U.S. Border Patrol bus leaving the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 23, 2018.
An immigrant child looks out from a U.S. Border Patrol bus leaving the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 23, 2018. VOA

When kidnappers assaulted a woman on a Guatemala City street and ripped her infant daughter from her arms, DNA testing came to the rescue. A positive match helped reunite mother and child after the baby turned up abandoned at a church with no identification.

In addition to identifying kidnap victims, DNA tests have helped connect adoptees with their biological parents and U.S. immigrants with their families.

Now, DNA technology is being called upon to bring together families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Migrants’ advocates, however, say using genetic testing in this way raises technical, legal and ethical issues.

While several companies have offered to donate kits, leading migrant rights groups have turned them down.

Missing children

Genetic tests have helped an organization called DNA-Prokids reconnect more than 1,000 missing children with their families in Mexico, Nepal, Thailand and several other countries, including the kidnapping case in Guatemala City.

Jose Lorente, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Granada in Spain, started the organization. Lorente said he was moved by the children he saw on the streets in cities around the world. Many were victims of trafficking and had parents who were looking for them.

Lorente said he hopes to establish a worldwide network of DNA testing labs to help children everywhere.

“This is a way to send a message to people trafficking children,” he said. “The message is, from now on, it is not going to be so easy to steal and traffic a child because he or she will be immediately identified.”

Border tests

Lorente said DNA tests could help make sure children coming across the U.S.-Mexico border are not being trafficked.

“It’s going to be a small percentage,” Lorente said, but added there may be cases in which ill-intentioned adults claim children who are not their own.

U.S. officials already use DNA tests to confirm that immigrants seeking to join relatives in the United States are related.

A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, June 17, 2018.
A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, June 17, 2018. VOA

Genetic testing led the U.S. State Department to suspend a refugee program in 2008. Suspecting fraud in the family reunification program, officials tested about 3,000 applicants, mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia and Liberia. They confirmed a parental connection in less than 20 percent of the cases.

The program restarted in 2012, requiring a DNA test to prove that a parent and child are related.

New technology could enable those tests to be conducted at the border in as little as 90 minutes. Law enforcement agencies are evaluating rapid DNA tests that can match a person in police custody to a database of known criminals. The same technology could be used to test migrants.

Thermo Fisher Scientific has offered to donate $1 million worth of its rapid test technology to help reunite families separated at the border.

That followed offers from two ancestry companies, 23andMe and MyHeritage, to donate their technologies to the effort.

Privacy concerns

“Who’s going to keep that information?” asked communications manager Fernanda Durand with the migrant rights group CASA. She is worried the government could use migrants’ genetic fingerprints later without their consent.

“It’s very troubling,” she said.

Standard DNA tests can only reliably identify parent-child and sibling relationships. In refugee situations, advocates say, it’s not unusual for someone other than a child’s biological parent to care for him or her — for example, if a parent has been killed or detained.

The ancestry companies’ tests look at much more genetic information than standard DNA tests and can identify broader relationships; but, they can also generate much more sensitive data, including health information, and that would need to be protected. These tests also are not certified for this purpose by the organization that accredits DNA testing labs.

Plus, “Most of these migrants probably don’t have a high school education and have never encountered DNA in their lives,” noted genetic counselor Kayla Sheets, founder of Vibrant Gene Consulting. “How can they give informed consent [to be tested] if they don’t understand the technology?”

“This is a very, very vulnerable population,” Sheets added, and extra safeguards need to be in place when dealing with their genetic information. “And I’m just not certain that these companies, nor quite frankly the government, [are] quite set up for that yet.”

23andMe and MyHeritage say they are sensitive to the privacy concerns and will offer the tests only to legal aid groups working with migrant families.

Those groups have said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” according to communications director Jennifer Falcon at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

Separating parents from their children is bad enough, she said.

Also read: Trump Calls For Deporting Illegal Immigrants With No Court Hearings

“We don’t believe you can solve one civil rights violation by creating another potential violation with their privacy,” Falcon added. (VOA)

Next Story

Student Project into Space, NASA Comes Up With Chicago Planetarium

As the NASA-owned, Northrop Grumann-developed Antares rocket successfully blasted off from the coast of Virginia on April 17, it wasn’t just making a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

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“Our main goal was to see if the ozone layer is getting thinner and by how much, and if there is different parts of the Earth’s atmosphere getting thinner because of the pollution and greenhouse gases, Pixabay

 

College student Fatima Guerra, 19, will be the first to admit, she’s into some really nerdy stuff.

“Like, up there nerdy.”

“Way up there nerdy,” she says. “All the way up into space.”

Guerra is an astronomer in training, involved since a high school internship with a small project at the Adler Planetarium, with big goals.

“Our main goal was to see if the ozone layer is getting thinner and by how much, and if there is different parts of the Earth’s atmosphere getting thinner because of the pollution and greenhouse gases,” she told VOA from the laboratory at the Adler where she often works.

FILE - Apollo 13 crew members Commander Captain James A. Lovell, Jr., right, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise pose for a photo during a 40th Anniversary reunion of the moon mission at the Adler Planetarium, April 12, 2010, in Chicago.
Apollo 13 crew members Commander Captain James A. Lovell, Jr., right, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise pose for a photo during a 40th Anniversary reunion of the moon mission at the Adler Planetarium, April 12, 2010, in Chicago. VOA

Coding ThinSat

Data that sheds light on those circumstances is gathered by a small electronic device called “ThinSat” designed to orbit the Earth. It is developed not by high-paid engineers and software programmers, but by Chicago-area students like Guerra.

“We focused on coding the different parts of the sensors that the ThinSat is composed of. So, we coded so that it can measure light intensity, pressure.”

“This stuff is very nerdy,” Jesus Garcia admits with a chuckle.

“What we hope to accomplish is look at Earth from space as if it was the very first exoplanet that we have. So, imagine that we are looking at the very first images from a very distant planet.”

As a systems engineer, Garcia oversees the work of the students developing ThinSat for the Adler’s Far Horizon’s Project, which he outlines “bring all types of students, volunteers and our staff to develop projects, engineering projects, that allow us to answer scientific questions.”

Garcia says the students he works with on the project cross national, racial and cultural divides to work toward a common goal.

“Here at the Adler, we have students who are minorities who have been faced with challenges of not having opportunities presented to them,” he said. “And here we are presenting a mission where they are collaborating with us scientists and engineers on our first mission that is going into space.”

Rocket carries project into space

As the NASA-owned, Northrop Grumann-developed Antares rocket successfully blasted off from the coast of Virginia on April 17, it wasn’t just making a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

On board was ThinSat, the culmination of work by many at the Adler, including Guerra, who joined the Far Horizons team as a high school requirement that ended up becoming much more.

“A requirement can become a life-changing opportunity, and you don’t even know it,” she told VOA. “It’s really exciting to see, or to know, especially, that my work is going to go up into space and help in the scientific world.”

Daughter of immigrants

It is also exciting for her parents, immigrants from Guatemala, who can boast that their daughter is one of the few who can claim to have built a satellite orbiting the Earth.

“I told them it might become a worldwide type of news, and I’m going to be a part of it. And they were really proud. And they were calling my family over there and saying, ‘She might be on TV.’ And it’s something they really feel a part of me about,” Guerra said.

Also Read: ‘Big Steps To Reduce Carbon Emission’ Apple Expects Cooperation With China on Clean Energy

Long after the data compiled by ThinSat is complete, Guerro will still have a place in history as a member of a team that put the first satellite developed by a private planetarium into space.

She says her friends don’t think that’s nerdy at all.

“It’s cool, because it’s interesting to see that something so nerdy is actually going to work, and is going to go up into something so important,” she said. (VOA)