The pandemic has stopped my wife and I from taking our baby back to America

by Stephen B. Wilcox | CNN

My wife and I, both American citizens, decided to work with a fertility clinic in Ghana in an attempt to have a child. Our reasons are a little complicated but not particularly relevant to what I have to say. We worked with an excellent clinic called Medifem in Accra, where we traveled in February.

The successful result was that our daughter, Vernice, was born on March 23. Shortly after her birth, we contacted the local US embassy with the intent of getting a US passport for our daughter, which is necessary for us to bring her home. The embassy won’t accept calls. The way it works is that you send them an email, and someone responds by calling or emailing sometime later.

That’s where our saga began. It’s one that may remind readers that during the pandemic something as essential as bringing one’s newborn daughter home to the US — to say nothing of other imperatives, like needing to travel for reasons like the health of a family member — can be met with a maddening layer of difficulties during this strange time.

When our daughter was born, we emailed the embassy immediately, and an embassy employee called back, asking if we wanted to be on a repatriation flight to the US that they were organizing. We said that we were fairly comfortable, not desperate, and Vernice had just been born, so we didn’t need to take somebody else’s seat.

Our next contact was with a different embassy employee, who called us. She told us we couldn’t get a passport without a birth certificate for Vernice, which takes about a month to obtain, so we initiated that process.

The next call was from yet another embassy employee, who told us the embassy would try to get Vernice an emergency passport so we could get on a flight. We told her we didn’t yet have a birth certificate, only a temporary one, but she said these were unusual times and that they’d see what they could do.

So, we gathered up the material she asked for, including printing out a pile of documents at one of the few places in Accra that offers such services during the pandemic. We obtained passport photos, etc.The day before our appointment with the embassy, we received a call from another embassy employee.

He said his colleague had “misspoken” — and that, in order for the embassy to issue a passport for Vernice, we would need to undergo a DNA test proving a biological relationship with her. According to Scott, such tests are required for anyone who has used assisted reproductive technology (ART), which we did (we used in-vitro fertilization, known commonly as IVF, with a young relative who served as a surrogate).

By this time, it had been seven weeks since Vernice’s birth. I appealed to the embassy staff I was in touch with, via email, on the grounds that we had been in touch with the embassy for all that time, but this was the first we had heard of this requirement. And, as a member of the embassy staff had said, these are not normal times. He said they “couldn’t make an exception,” so we were not allowed on the repatriation flight with our daughter.

One of the embassy staff sent me an email describing the process: We have to contract with an approved DNA lab in the US and have them send a testing kit to the embassy in Accra. The embassy then, under this protocol, calls us in at some unspecified time after the kit arrives and administers the test. They send it off. When the results come back, they call us in and consider our case. Needless to say, this all takes several weeks, and we had already lost seven.

I called two labs in the US, and they both told me the same thing: They wouldn’t send out a test kit, as US embassies weren’t administering DNA tests due to the pandemic. I emailed the embassy again, and, after a few days, they finally got back to me and confirmed that’s correct. They aren’t doing any DNA tests right now; maybe they’ll resume sometime in the future, and they’ll call us when they’re doing them again. However, they did call some days later and finally set up an appointment for us to come in and apply for Vernice’s passport, which we’ve now done.So we’re waiting for a call to find out where we are in the process.

If the requirement for a DNA test can’t be waived, we have to wait until they give us the go-ahead to start the process of contracting with a lab to send the kit. We can’t even do that until the embassy gets back to us.We tracked down the US ambassador to Ghana on LinkedIn and sent her a message. She was kind enough to reply, but, although her response expressed sympathy, she offered no specific help. Our theory, though, is that she was the catalyst for at least calling us in to apply for the passport.

We contacted the office of Sen. Pat Toomey, who represents our home state of Pennsylvania. We at least got an email back from Sen. Toomey’s office saying that an inquiry has been sent to the State Department. Toomey’s office conveyed a message from the embassy noting the section of US law (and its specific language) requiring evidence of parentage and that the embassy was still reviewing whether a DNA test would be needed in our circumstances.

So here we are in Accra, almost 12 weeks now after Vernice’s birth, waiting to hear what’s next, with no passport, so no way to get home. The convention is that babies shouldn’t fly until they’re four weeks old, so we expected to stay here until April 23 or so. Now it’s June 13, with no end in sight. Don’t get me wrong. Accra’s a perfectly nice city, and the people here are delightful. But you can imagine that, like anyone else, we have commitments, doctors’ appointments, prescriptions to fill, home maintenance, etc., back home that we’re not able to attend to.

And I have a business with 35 employees trying to navigate its way through this pandemic, all while I’m stranded in Ghana.We understand that these are difficult times. However, our experience with the embassy has been particularly frustrating. When I asked why this DNA test is necessary, one of the embassy employees said it was to prevent fraud.

What doesn’t seem quite right is that, at least according to the embassy staff member’s statement that they “can’t make an exception,” we can’t use the pandemic as any sort of excuse to get out of the DNA test. We still have to inflexibly follow their rules — rules that impose a requirement that we can’t meet.(The State Department does not comment on individual citizens abroad. When reached for comment, a State Department official noted that US embassies and consulates remain open for emergency services for US citizens, going on to write: “All determinations regarding the transmission of citizenship are made in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). In order to transmit U.S. citizenship to a child born abroad, there must be, among other requirements, a biological relationship between the child and the transmitting U.S. citizen parent or parents.

The Department documents children as U.S. citizens and issues Consular Reports of Birth Abroad (CRBAs) to them upon application as long as there is a determination that the applicable U.S. citizenship transmission laws are met. We also issue passports to U.S. citizen children when the requirements of the applicable laws and regulations are met.”)

Interestingly enough, the State Department Bureau of Consular website describes these DNA tests as follows: “Genetic testing helps to verify a biological…relationship in the absence of sufficient evidence to establish such a relationship…Due to high costs, complexity, and logistical delays, genetic testing is generally used only in the absence of sufficient evidence (documentation, photos, etc.) establishing the biological relationship.”

There is no mention of a rule that a DNA test is required when using assisted reproductive technology, sometimes referred to as ART. We have thorough documentation (much more, actually, by virtue of using ART) and mountains of photographs.At any rate, as specific and elaborate as our situation is, it’s not unique. People all over the world are either separated from their newborns or stranded with their newborns because of the pandemic.

It turns out that surrogacy is something of an international business, a business that, thankfully, we didn’t have to engage with because of the generosity of our relative. The result, though, is that during the pandemic hundreds of children have been born to surrogates without the biological parents being able to be present at the birth or to retrieve their children.

According to The New York Times, as of mid-May, there were 100 newborns stranded in Ukraine, a country that has quite a surrogate industry. And there are people from all over the world who have chosen to have children in the US via surrogacy, who can’t get to the US to pick up their children or can’t get a US passport (which is required) to get their children home, The Washington Post reported in April. 

The BBC reported on an Indian couple who embarked on a nearly 1,000-mile road trip to meet their new baby across the country, due to travel restrictions within India.After reading about these stories, my wife and I feel fortunate. We were able to witness Vernice’s birth, and we’re able to be with her as she goes through these crucial initial months of life. We would be truly frantic if we were having to watch her grow up on Zoom.It’s tempting to relate our story to any number of things we see in the news about the present administration —about the neglect, mismanagement, and understaffing of the State Department, about the terrible treatment of immigrants at our southern border, about the way that our president has characterized African countries. However, for now, I’ll just limit myself to the facts and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

One thing is for certain, though: We are hoping the embassy here can show some flexibility, given the situation the whole world is facing. And to anyone finding themselves in similar circumstances: We sympathize, and we recognize that many of you have it much tougher than we do.

Read from source CNN

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