DNA can prove immigrant families belong together
When Scarlett Simonian petitioned in 2004 for her Honduran mother to immigrate to the U.S., she was asked to provide a birth certificate and other documents to prove they were blood relatives.But recently Simonian was told she needed more proof. The consular officer in Honduras suggested a DNA test.Simonian, whose mother missed her wedding 10 years ago because she couldn’t get a visa, said she understands the need to verify familial relationships but thinks DNA testing is unnecessary. She and her mother are still awaiting the results.”The birth certificate should be enough,” said the Los Angeles resident, now a naturalized citizen with two children, ages 4 and 6. “All the proof you need is there.”DNA testing has been used for years to help convict felons and clear those wrongly accused of crimes. Now genetic testing is being employed in immigration cases to confirm relationships of family members trying to become legal immigrants.Neither the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services nor the State Department keeps statistics on DNA testing, but officials of both agencies say it is used infrequently.”We will consider all other documentation first,” said Martin Handman of Citizenship and Immigration Services in Los Angeles. “It’s more of a last resort when other documentation is missing.”But private companies that do the testing — including Genetic Profiles in San Diego and Genelex in Seattle — say they are seeing a boom in immigration-related DNA testing. And if Congress approves a comprehensive immigration bill, they expect more requests for genetic tests.”We’ve seen quite a dramatic increase,” said Jack Anderson of Andergene Labs in Oceanside, Calif. “This is certainly the gateway to keep out those who are not related … The DNA test is basically the definitive test.”Some companies are actively pursuing the market, attending conferences with immigration attorneys, hiring staff fluent in foreign languages and forging relationships with U.S. consulates and embassies.Generally, U.S. citizens can petition for their spouses, parents, children or siblings to immigrate to the U.S., and green-card holders can do so for their spouses and unmarried children. The applicant must prove the familial relationship using birth, marriage, school, medical or other documents.If either Citizenship and Immigration Services or the State Department requires more evidence or suspects fraud, it may request DNA testing. In some cases, a federal immigration judge can request a test.The tests are voluntary, but applicants risk having their petition rejected if they don’t comply.Some attorneys and applicants say DNA testing unnecessarily delays the process and that the cost — $700 to $800 — is prohibitive. Other attorneys have expressed concerns about the possibility of DNA being shared with other federal agencies.”There is this other fear that the government is starting to catalog and categorize DNA for everybody,” said Los Angeles immigration attorney Alary Piibe. “It’s like Big Brother looking over your shoulder.”Soon after getting married, Simonian obtained a green card and traveled to Honduras to visit her mother, Martha Corina. But six years have passed since their reunion. As her children get older, Simonian, 35, said she is anxious for her mother to make the move.”My kids want their grandma,” she said.Simonian, who owns a garment business in Los Angeles, first filed an immigration petition for her mother two years ago, but didn’t learn that there was doubt about their relationship until May. The consular official questioned why the pair did not have any photographs together.In addition to the $750 for DNA testing, Simonian said she has spent more than $500 on paperwork and fees. Though she doesn’t blame the government for wanting to root out fraud, she is frustrated by the costs and lengthy delays in securing her mother’s legal residency.”Every time you are close to it,” she said, “you are not there yet.”Despite concerns about DNA testing, scientific proof is sometimes necessary, government officials said. Applicants may try to pass off their nieces, nephews or grandchildren as their own.Certain scenarios raise suspicion. A father may petition for a child but not be listed on the birth certificate and be unable to show financial support or involvement in the child’s life. A mother may petition for a 20-year-old son after writing on an immigration application 15 years ago that she had no children. Occasionally, the necessary documents are simply not available — destroyed or lost during war or a natural disaster.Chief Executive Caroline Caskey of Identigene said her company can test for maternity, paternity, sibling and other familial relationships and has conducted testing in Nigeria and Vietnam. Caskey said the tests “smooth the path to immigration for people who are being honest.”But sometimes DNA testing produces unexpected results.Kwei Narh Abloso and his wife legally immigrated to the United States in 1995. Because neither had jobs, they left their son and daughter with his family in Ghana and planned to bring them to the U.S. within a few years.”That was the worst mistake we ever made,” said Abloso, a cement company driver and videophone salesman.Abloso sent money for school, food and clothes for both children. He called every week, spending up to $600 a month on phone cards. In 1996, he tried to get them green cards but was unsuccessful. Hoping it would improve his chances, Abloso became a U.S. citizen in 2001. Then he filed a family petition and submitted birth certificates, receipts for wired funds, school-fee documents and phone cards.In 2003, immigration authorities approved Abloso’s petition for the children’s green cards. The children completed their interview at the U.S. Embassy in Accra. The final step was DNA testing to prove that the children were his.But the test results stunned Abloso — he was not related to either child. Today, both teenagers remain in Ghana, and Abloso is trying to decide what to do next.”When the results came back, I died inside,” he said. “Despite what the tests say, I still feel deeply within my heart they are my real children.”Abloso’s attorney, Pamela Hartman, said her client’s case is exceptional.”The law is not really set up for this situation,” she said. “What’s your definition of parenting? Whether or not they are biologically his, he raised them.”
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