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DNA Testing Increases in Immigration Cases

Los Angeles Times, June 2006

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 Chatsworth 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, lab director at 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.”

Indeed, 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 also can request a test.

The tests are voluntary, but applicants risk having their petition rejected if they don’t comply. Several immigration attorneys said they advise their clients to cooperate.

“It removes any doubt,” said Aggie R. Hoffman, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer.

Genetic testing also can play a key role in preventing child trafficking or abduction, said Angela Aggeler, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

But some attorneys and applicants say that DNA testing unnecessarily delays the process and that the cost — typically $700 to $800 — is prohibitive for many. 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 then.

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 she didn’t learn that there was some doubt about their relationship until last month. That’s when she was told that the consular official questioned why the pair did not have any photographs together.

In addition to the $750 for the 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 escalating costs and 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.

And occasionally, the necessary documents are simply not available — destroyed or lost during war or a natural disaster.

Identigene Chief Executive Caroline Caskey said her company, based in Houston, can test for maternity, paternity, sibling and other familial relationships and has conducted testing in such distant countries as 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, 44, and his wife legally immigrated to the United States in 1995. But because neither had jobs lined up, they left their son and daughter with his family in Ghana and planned to bring them to Fontana within a few years.

“That was the worst mistake we ever made,” said Abloso, who works as a cement company driver and a videophone salesman.

Abloso sent money to pay for school, food and clothes for both children. He called every week, sometimes 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. Then the children completed their interview at the U.S. Embassy in Accra. The final step was DNA testing to prove that Keturah, 13, and Nana, 17, were his children.

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.”

More than a month after getting the results, Abloso told Nana, who was born to another woman before he got married. But he has yet to break the news to Keturah. For this reason, he asked that his middle name be used for this story.

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.”

Abloso and his attorney are looking at other options, including having his wife petition for Keturah. He and his wife are also considering selling their house and moving back to Ghana.

But he still believes that there should be a way for him to bring his children to the U.S. DNA tests are not the only way to prove you are a parent, he said.

“I’ve raised them since they were babies,” he said. “I am the only father they know.”

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