DNA Testing A Mixed Bag For Immigrants

DNA Testing A Mixed Bag For Immigrants
In Visa Cases, Certainty Has a Cost, Lawyers Say

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006; Page A01

DNA testing has emerged as a powerful and sometimes controversial tool for U.S. residents seeking to help overseas relatives enter the country legally.

The tests have been invaluable for thousands of citizens or permanent residents who want to sponsor relatives but lack birth certificates or other documents to prove the family relationship. But some immigration lawyers worry that U.S. authorities are increasingly requiring DNA tests even when the paperwork is in order — adding substantial costs and delays to an arduous process.

“What's troubling is that it seems like the availability of DNA testing is leading to a greater level of mistrust of identity documents that otherwise would have been readily accepted,” said Alison Brown, a lawyer based in Silver Spring.

Last year, about 718,000 people were granted permanent residency or a temporary visa on the basis of being a parent, child or sibling of someone who was a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or temporary visa holder.

Officials at the State and Homeland Security departments said they do not track the number of DNA tests submitted by people seeking to sponsor a relative for a visa. But the AABB (formerly the American Association of Blood Banks), the accrediting organization for laboratories that do DNA testing for immigration applications, receives about 12 e-mails or phone calls a day from people seeking referrals for immigration purposes, a spokeswoman said. At Fairfax Identity Laboratories, one of two DNA laboratories in the Washington region accredited to handle immigration cases, the number of requests for tests has increased about 20 percent, to about 2,000, in the past year, said Joe Chimera, senior vice president.

Immigration lawyers interviewed in the Washington area said officials who process visa applications at U.S. consulates overseas appear to be driving the increase in DNA testing.

“In many consulates, DNA testing has really become the norm,” said Daniel Park, whose Alexandria-based practice serves mostly clients from Latin America.

Parastoo Zahedi, a lawyer practicing in Tysons Corner, said she became concerned about that possibility seven months ago when an official at the U.S. consulate in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, told one of her clients that he had to submit a DNA test to prove he was related to his 65-year-old mother in Virginia, who was sponsoring him for permanent residency.

Zahedi said she was surprised because the client, a 42-year-old Iranian, had all the documentation normally required to prove his relationship to his mother, including a valid Iranian birth certificate. The Department of Homeland Security had already approved the client's petition — the first step in any visa application. The interview at the consulate was the final step, in which he was supposed to demonstrate that there was no reason to bar his admission to the United States.

“At first, I thought it was something he said in his interview — maybe some hesitation in one of his answers that raised suspicions,” Zahedi said.

But in the ensuing months, she said, two more Iranian clients with solid documentation were told the same thing at the U.S. consulates in Abu Dhabi and Istanbul.

One of Zahedi's clients, Mehdie Halatai, 72, of Oakton, said his 17-year-old son, Mehran, got the word in Abu Dhabi. “My son said the official told him very simply, 'No DNA test, no visa.' . . . There was no explanation,” Halatai said.

Testing ultimately proved the relationship — as it did for Zahedi's two other clients.

But the test cost about $800, and because there is no U.S. consulate in Iran, the family had to pay hundreds of dollars more in travel expenses to send Mehran Halatai back to Abu Dhabi for the test and a second consular interview. The back-and-forth also has added several months to Mehran Halatai's wait.

Priscilla Labovitz, a lawyer practicing in the District, said a similar situation has delayed a Cameroonian-born client's reunion with his two teenage children in Mali for nearly two years.

“There's no alarm bell that goes off when you look at their documents,” she said. “Yet this man has had to put up with hassle after hassle to arrange the DNA tests.”

Zahedi wonders why her clients had to submit to them in the first place.

“I think they are being picked on because of where they're from. . . . After all these years of practice, why am I only seeing this coming into use now? It makes no sense unless someone from above is saying that they need to have more scrutiny of people from these places.”

Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the State Department, said consular officials are warned about credibility problems with particular types of documents from particular places. But he said that there is no blanket DNA test requirement for applicants based on nationality and that it is against agency rules for consular officials to require DNA testing in individual cases.

“Our policy is explicitly that it is not required. It is always voluntary,” Edson said.

Edson added that a DNA test is one of a variety of types of supporting evidence that consular officers will accept from applicants whose primary documents are deemed insufficient.

“The confusion may arise,” Edson said, from the fact that “we do require applicants to prove they are who they say they are. If everything else they present doesn't prove that, then we may suggest genetic testing.”

Some lawyers counter that growing awareness of the accuracy of DNA testing — which has been available since the late 1980s — has caused consular officials to become unduly mistrustful of other legitimate forms of evidence.

“It seems like in the past they were more accepting of the fact that a lot of Third World countries may not be as sophisticated in their production of documents as the United States,” said David Goren, a lawyer based in Silver Spring. “Now, if there's so much as a typo or some whiteout, it's just assumed that it's a fraudulent document.”

Others contend that consular officials have good reason to be wary.

“Look, the consulates are just trying to prevent fraud,” said Luis Gonzalez, a lawyer based in Falls Church. “A lot of people think that they can just come to the consulate and say this is my son, when really he's the nephew.”

Several lawyers said they have had cases in which a client learned from DNA testing that the child being sponsored was not biologically related.

DNA tests can save considerable time and difficulty for someone like Pedro Antonio Monjaras, 47, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Annandale who recently brought his 20-year-old daughter over from El Salvador. Monjaras said that he has always supported her financially but that he did not sign her birth certificate until five years ago. As a result, that document was not considered sufficient evidence of their relationship.

Monjaras might have been able to prove his case by submitting receipts for the money transfers he has sent his daughter and by obtaining affidavits from previous neighbors. But Monjaras, a delivery truck driver, said it would have taken months.

“You're here, they're over there, and each step takes forever to organize,” he said. “I would literally have had to send people money for the pen and paper for each affidavit.”

So when his attorney proposed a DNA test, Monjaras leapt at the idea.

“It was like, 'Great! Problem solved,' ” he said.