Flying While Black: Border Control, DNA and the Case of the Lips

After tracing his maternal ancestry in 2005 through genealogical DNA testing, or personal genomics, and finding his ancestral links to the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone, actor Isaiah Washington attested to his “rebirth” saying he believes that “DNA will finally become the tool to bridge the gap between our brothers and sisters who have been lost.” Earlier this year, now “DNA-branded” [see note at end on this term] as Sierra Leonean, Washington was sworn in as a citizen of that country. Citizenship by way of mitochondrial DNA.

But what about the role of DNA for our brothers and sisters who have been stranded or detained abroad? Enter “the lips case”.

On May 21st 2009, Somali-born Canadian citizen Suaad Hagi Mohamud attempted to board a flight out of Nairobi to return home to Toronto, after a three-week visit to Kenya. Upon inspecting her passport, Dutch KLM airline authorities claimed that her lips looked different than that observed in her four-year-old passport photo, branded her an “imposter” and not the rightful holder of the passport that she presented. Mohamud was detained overnight in the airport. Two Canadian High Commission officials met with her the following morning, told her “you are not Suaad” and confiscated her passport. Mohamud was held in the airport for four days until she was released on a bond, tasked with proving her identity within a two-week time frame.

Canadian High Commission officials did not accept Suaad’s ID cards and she was charged with using a false passport, impersonating a Canadian and with being in Kenya illegally. Subsequently she was jailed by Kenyan authorities from June 3rd to June 11th, facing possible deportation to Somalia. While Mohamud was in limbo in Kenya, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon was quoted on July 24th as saying, “there is no tangible proof” that Mohamud is Canadian and that “all Canadians who hold passports generally have a picture that is identical in their passport to what they claim to be.”

It wasn’t until Mohamud requested DNA testing through a motion filed before the Canadian Federal Court by her attorney in Toronto, and then had that test conducted on August 10th 2009 that charges against her were dropped. Mohamud’s DNA was compared to that of her Canadian born son, confirming her identity with a probability of 99.99%. She was issued an emergency passport and she boarded a plane to Amsterdam to make her way home to Toronto arriving on August 15th. This DNA verification not only proved who she said she was, but, apparently, determined her citizenship status as well. This case raises the question of “who can be abandoned by the state and by what technological means? and “will this case be used to argue for even more surveillance by way of a genomic encoded passport?”

The Mohamud case reveals that although identification documents function as a key technology in the contemporary management of state sanctioned human mobility, the discretionary power exercised by the customs inspector, and increasingly by the airline official as proxy customs inspector, is a power that makes it plain that, as David Lyon puts it, “all technologies are human activities.” (Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance) Meaning, that these technologies of border control (passports, biometrics, airport pre-boarding passenger screening zones) are developed within, put to use and often replicate existing socio-spatial inequalities. (See this deadly example too)

For Mohamud, DNA testing was a technology of hope that allowed her to challenge her abandonment or “racial purging” by the state. The answer to whether Mohamud’s abandonment was racially charged is found in an interview with the CBC where Mohamud contested that

The Canadian High Commission wouldn’t be treating me the way they treat me. If I’m a white person, I wouldn’t be there in one day. I wouldn’t have missed the flight.

Mohamud has since filed a 2.6 million dollar lawsuit against the Canadian government.

Note: Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins uses the term “DNA-branded” in discussing the “freak” show that is ‘Whose Your Daddy?’ episodes of The Maury Povich Show and The Montel Williams Show, where potential fathers are subject to paternity testing and if DNA-branded as father they are subject to the requisite lecture on responsibility by the hosts.

Simone is now tweeting surveillance stories and links at @wewatchwatchers