Understanding the dangers of genetic testing in immigration

By Gabriel Marrocco and Yann Joly September 27, 201827 September 2018

Understanding the dangers of genetic testing in immigration

Genetic testing is used increasingly in areas that extend well beyond the field of medicine. One of them is immigration. Since the 1990s, Canadian immigration agents have used genetic test results from family reunification applicants to confirm their biological relationships. There have also been recent media reports that Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers have used private ancestry genetic testing companies to find additional information pertaining to the ancestry of detained individuals scheduled for deportation. Based on reports from other countries, genetic tests could also be used to determine the precise age of immigrants, or establish if someone is affected by, or more likely to develop, specific diseases that would cause excessive demand on a country’s health services.

What is concerning is that there are few legal constraints on genetic testing in immigration despite the potential for misuse and the associated ethical, legal and social issues.

The regulations and laws applicable to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and the CBSA do not specifically address the processing of genetic information. In IRCC’s sector of activity, immigration officers fall back on default provisions on the examination process of foreign nationals, which state that applicants must provide “any relevant information that immigration officers reasonably require”, to guide their use of genetic testing. The only clear limit is found in IRCC’s administrative guidelines for family reunification and citizenship applications. It limits such tests to measures of ‘last resort’. This sort of broad framework leaves too much room for error and arbitrary decision-making, and is not conducive to responsible or efficient use of genetic testing. 

Here are some examples of how genetic tests are used, or could be used in the near future, in the context of immigration:

1. DNA testing to establish filiation

Permanent residents and citizens of Canada can file an application with IRCC to reunite with their family members living abroad. When evidence submitted to support the existence of a familial relationship is unsatisfactory, immigration officers can suggest genetic testing as a last recourse to prove biological relatedness. This entails a shift away from the psychosocial model of family relationships used in Canadian provincial family law, restricting who counts as a family member for immigration purposes. The absence of robust, transparent, IRCC governance framework that would apply to these tests also raises considerable legal and ethical issues associated with informed consent, confidentiality and the return of results process. For example, imagine unexpectedly learning through a genetic test undergone for immigration purposes that one of your children is not biologically related to you!

2. Genetic ancestry testing

Some CBSA officers have reportedly used the services of direct to consumer ancestry genetic testing companies to obtain additional information about the geographical origin of detained individuals scheduled for deportation

The accuracy of these tests is highly variable and depends on the quality of the database used by each company. Even though genetic ancestry testing may reveal information about an individual’s ancestry, geographical origin or, biological relatives, this information cannot identify the actual country of citizenship of an individual. It also raises ethical and legal issues associated with consent and confidentiality which are more pervasive when dealing with an individual in a vulnerable position (i.e. individuals who are incarcerated, and waiting to be deported).

3. Predictive and diagnostic genetic tests

The rapid development of genomic medicine suggests that diagnostic and predictive tests could eventually become part of the already controversial medical examination process that permanent residency applicants must undergo in Canada. For now, these predictive tests are only accurate for a handful of specific diseases (e.g. Huntington’s disease, sickle cell disease, hereditary breast cancer). Using them without a proper ethical framework raises similar challenges relating to discrimination, informed consent, privacy, return of results, and scientific uncertainty.

4. Epigenetics

Research on epigenetics, which studies biological mechanisms that can activate genes, promises to improve our understanding of genetics, aging, evolution, and agriculture processes. Epigenetics is a young science whose most promising applications are currently still limited to research projects. It was recently used in Germany in an attempt to determine more precisely the age of migrants, and prevent individuals from fraudulently applying as minors for a more favorable treatment. This use of the epigenetic clock method is gaining traction, but it is still premature in our opinion to implement it outside a research context.

Future outlook

So far, the use of genetic testing in immigration matters has been like a game of Snakes and Ladders – where initial progress can suffer major setbacks adversely affecting immigrants who bear the brunt of these ‘experiments’.

Given the uncertainty still surrounding many of these tests, Canadian agencies should only implement them after a complete, transparent investigation of both their scientific limitations and ethical challenges not unlike the one they conducted more than a decade ago to get better insight into the use of biometric technology. Only then should they decide to move forward with some of these tests, supported by a proper ethical governance framework that will ensure that the rights of immigrants, who are in a vulnerable position when arriving in Canada, are respected.

Yann Joly, Ph.D. (DCL), FCAHS, Ad.E. is the Research Director of the Centre of Genomics and Policies (CGP). He is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Medicine, Department of Human Genetics cross-appointed at the Bioethics Unit, at McGill University.

Gabriel Marrocco, L.L.B. is a research assistant at the Centre of Genomics and Policies (CGP) at McGill University. He has also been selected to participate in the Canadian Bar Association's Young Lawyers International Program and will be joining Transparency International in Madagascar. 

The authors’ views are their own.



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