For untold numbers of Latinos born in the Southwest who were delivered by midwives, obtaining a passport has become almost an impossibility, according to a class action suit filed by the ACLU on September 9th. The suit alleges the State Department is sending this group of passport applicants on a “scavenger hunt” and when presented with requested additional documentation, denying the applications anyway.

On June 1, 2009 the Federal Government will implement the land and sea travel requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). The rules require US citizens entering the United States at sea or land ports of entry, even from WHTI countries, have a passport, passport card, or other WHTI-compliant document. For Mexican-Americans, like all Americans wishing to visit Mexico, that means they will need a passport or other WHTI-compliant document to return to the United States from their Mexican visit.

The Brownsville Herald has reported that “the new policy assumes that midwives provided 15,000 South Texans with fraudulent birth certificates between 1960 and the early 1990s.”

Patricia Austin and Imelda Hart contacted U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. Both politicians agreed to look at Hart’s passport denial case, but she still has no passport after being denied in July 2007. Both women currently live in central Florida. Hart was midwife-delivered in the Rio Grande Valley area of southern Texas, where a number of midwives were convicted of granting fraudulent birth certificates, while Austin was midwife-delivered in Jackson, Tenn. Austin received her passport in less than two weeks.

According to the State Department’s site, in order to get a passport, you need to prove citizenship. For citizens born in the U.S., you can provide a previously issued passport, or a state, city or county certified birth certificate. The birth certificate had to be filed with the government within one year of the date of birth. Recognizing that many birth certificates were not filed in a timely manner, the State Department states,

A Delayed Birth Certificate filed more than one year after your birth may be acceptable if it:

  1. Listed the documentation used to create it and,
  2. Signed by the attending physician or midwife, or, lists an affidavit signed by the parents, or shows early public records.

Furthermore, recognizing that in many cases a person may have no birth certificate, like my own father who had no problem obtaining a passport, who was born in the early part of the 20th century at home, the State Department says that you can provide a “letter of no record” from the state in which you were born, and as many documents as possible of a baptismal certificate, hospital birth certificate, census record, early school record, family bible record, and doctor’s record of post-natal care, to prove citizenship.

The ACLU tells the story of David Hernandez, a plaintiff in the case, who was born in San Benito, Texas, in 1964. Hernandez lived and attended school in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and honorably served in the U.S. Army. Hernandez provided the State Department evidence of his mother’s residency in the U.S. at the time of his birth, his immunization records, school records, and even a letter from the Mexican Civil Registry stating that there was no record of his being born in Mexico to meet their demand for additional information. Nevertheless, the State Department denied his application and closed the case. Hernandez said,

I thought that in America everyone was supposed to be equal. I was born here. I’ve lived and worked here and served in the Army. I feel betrayed, like my country is stabbing me in the back just because my mother didn’t have the luxury of having me in a hospital.

Juan Aranda, another plaintiff in the case, born in Weslaco, Texas in 1970 has a similar story. He has lived and worked in the U.S. his entire life. Today, he works as a supervisor at a U.S. company that sells drinking water in Mexico, and must frequently cross the border as part of his job. Without a passport he is in serious danger of losing his job.

ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project attorney Robin Goldfaden stated,

Based on blanket race-based suspicion, the State Department is sending this select group of passport applicants on a veritable scavenger hunt and then refusing to issue them passports without a fair examination of their individual cases. Denying passports to U.S. citizens in this way is clearly against the law and violates our core American values of fairness and equality.

To me, considering the conviction of midwives in the Rio Grande Valley for granting fraudulent birth certificates, requiring the extra documentation as stated in State Department rules to obtain a passport makes sense.

However, blanketly denying passport applications even after the additional documentation has been provided is high-handed and outrageous behavior by the State Department, and needs to be stopped immediately.