DNA Testing Used in U.S. Immigration Cases

DNA tests are starting to replace birth certificates and other documents as tools for U.S. immigration authorities. The tests provide a more accurate way of proving a biological connection when trying to bring a foreign relative into the U.S. legally.

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In movies, television and in real life, we've seen how DNA tests can send criminals to jail and sometimes free people who have been wrongly accused. Now, DNA tests are helping reunite families in two very different circumstances.

In El Salvador, the tests are helping bring together families lost during a civil war. But first, a look at how DNA is helping connect families in immigration cases.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

At his laboratory in Oceanside, California, Jack Anderson uses a high tech machine…

Mr. JACK ANDERSON (Scientist, Andergene Labs): A capillary electrophoresis genetic analyzer.

DEL BARCO: …to test DNA samples, trying to match immigrants in the U.S. with their relatives in the old countries.

Mr. ANDERSON: It will come up with a dead zero if you're not related. And then 99.99 percent, which is essentially 100 percent that they are related.

DEL BARCO: Anderson says people may fake documents, but there's no way to fake a DNA test. That's why immigration officials are looking at DNA as a definitive way of proving a biological connection when someone is trying to bring a relative into the U.S., legally. Recently, Anderson's lab came up with a DNA match for 26-year old Michelle Gardula and her eight-year old son Reggie, who she left behind in the Philippines with her father.

Ms. MICHELLE GARDULA: I haven't seen him at all for like seven years, almost. When I left for the United States, he just learned how to walk and he didn't even speak yet. The last time I saw him he was sleeping.

DEL BARCO: For seven years, Gardula produced a trail of documents and receipts as she pleaded with immigration officials to allow her to bring Reggie to California. But immigration officials remained skeptical and noticed a discrepancy in Reggie's birth certificate.

Ms. GARDULA: They scrutinized each and every paperwork, and they noticed that, oh, he was born on this month or he didn't get registered until this month. So that kind of rose some questions.

DEL BARCO: Finally, someone at the American Embassy in Manila recommended a DNA test. Gardula paid $900, and a sample was taken by swabbing the inside of her mouth. The same thing for Reggie, with a kit sent to the Embassy and mailed back to the Andergene lab.

Ms. GARDULA: At first I was worried about the accuracy of the test, because they took a swab, and I'm thinking, well what if I ate something and that strain would mess up something, you know. What if my son ate something before he took the swab and it kind of altered something? What if they gave me the wrong baby on my way to the hospital? What if it doesn't match?

DEL BARCO: Many immigrants are apprehensive about the DNA tests, and a few have discovered they are not related, after all, to family members they were trying to bring into the U.S. Immigration attorney Alary Piibe says his biggest fear is that the government might misuse the genetic information that gathers on immigrants.

ALARY PIIBE (Immigration Attorney): It's a George Orwellian scenario where you are identified by the saliva whenever you walk into a building or you breathe into a scanner and they say, oh, you are that person. It may not be the way we're going, but the possibility exists.

DEL BARCO: But in Michelle Gardula's case, DNA offered just the proof she needed. The tests on her and her son Reggie was a perfect match. Now she is looking forward with reuniting with him on August 1st.

Ms. GARDULA: He likes robots, he likes… well, now he wants a Gameboy. He can't get enough of Disneyland, and I told him, I promise, I promise, I'll get you there. I'll get a year pass. So, yeah, he's pretty excited.

DEL BARCO: Gardula says the whole process was a little unsettling, but getting her son back makes it all worthwhile.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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