Throwback Thursday: How a DNA Test Broke an Immigration Officer's Heart

Years ago, when I was a very green young attorney, I had a client who had been kidnapped and tortured under a brutal totalitarian dictatorship. The client, whom I will call Alonzo, was a prominent political dissident who managed to bribe his way out of captivity. Covered in torture scars, Alonzo fled to the United States, leaving five children behind. After winning political asylum, Alonzo filed visa petitions for his children to join him. The children's fates thus landed in my very inexperienced hands.

In Alonzo's home country, formal adoption procedures exist, but they are often not used. Society generally accepts a child as yours if you claim him and no one contests it. Why, after all, would you want another mouth to feed? Under U.S. immigration law, however, a parent cannot file a visa petition for an adopted child unless formal adoption procedures took place before the child reached a certain age. Unknown to me, one of Alonzo's children was adopted, but the adoption was never formalized.

I compiled a thick visa petition package, including photo after photo of Alonzo with his children in their home, at different ages, celebrating birthdays and holidays. The package left no doubt that this was a loving and close-knit family. But the U.S. consulate that processed the visas abroad wanted DNA tests to confirm Alonzo's paternity. DNA tests are expensive, and a real hardship for uprooted refugees who have lost all their worldly goods. There is little doubt, however, that they make a consular officer's job much easier. If the results are good, the relationship is good.

When I received the DNA test results in the mail, I was consumed with both hope and fear. How certain can any man be that a child is biologically his? I paged through the results uneasily. Child after child, the results showed a match. But then I reached the results for Alonzo's 17-year-old daughter. They revealed that Alonzo and his daughter were not biologically related.

I knew the children only through photographs, and this child was beautiful. She had big, dark eyes shrouded in a curtain of long, thick lashes. Her smile was shy and sweet. This child was about to lose her brothers to another country, and be left by herself in a war zone.

I called the client to share the news. He did not sound surprised. Still naïve, I was puzzled. Only years later did I learn from another attorney of the girl's informal adoption. Alonzo must have known I could not legally file a visa petition, so he kept the information to himself. I do not blame him. What choice would I have made in his situation?

After I forwarded the DNA test results, the consulate called in the children to pick up their visas. Except, of course, the girl who failed her test. But when the children arrived the following day, the consular officer had a change of heart. He requested that Alonzo's daughter come to the consulate to obtain the visa that had been prepared for her. In other words, the consular officer broke the law. I suppose he could make peace with himself only by keeping the family together.

To any worried attorneys reading this post: I changed many details to protect the family's identity. But the core truth of the story remains intact. A consular officer could not stomach the cruelty of the law he was asked to enforce, so he didn't obey it.