Midwife Delivery Can Lead to Passport Denial
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
The State Department is denying passports to people born in southern Texas near the border with Mexico if they were delivered by midwives, citing a history of birth certificate forgeries there for Mexican-born children dating to the 1960s, according to U.S. officials.
In a lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that the government is systematically discriminating against U.S.-born citizens on the basis of ethnicity and national origin. Attorneys for the plaintiff assert that such arbitrary bans disproportionately affect rural and poor people who have less access to doctors.
Federal authorities "have adopted and applied blanket suspicion toward one group of passport applicants . . . effectively denying the passports of many for the apparent sins of a few," the ACLU states in a complaint to be filed today in U.S. District Court in McAllen, Tex.
The civil liberties group is seeking class-action status on behalf of tens of thousands of Mexican Americans of all ages delivered by midwives in border states, alleging violations of constitutional due process and equal protection guarantees.
Steve Royster, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, and Bill Wright, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a successor agency to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, declined to comment, citing the litigation.
It is not clear when U.S. officials began viewing midwife certificates with suspicion. State Department spokesman Cy Ferenchak confirmed the policy to the Brownsville Herald in Texas earlier this summer. The paper quoted him as saying, "Normally, a birth certificate is sufficient to prove citizenship. . . . But because of a history of fraudulently filed reports on the Southwest border, we don't have much faith in the document."
The federal government won convictions against dozens of South Texas midwives from 1967 through 1997 for fraudulently registering births that they did not deliver, a U.S. official said, with most convictions coming after 1980.
An INS list last updated in October 2002 identifies at least 65 midwives who have been convicted of fraud since the 1960s. U.S. officials previously said cases in the 1990s uncovered forgeries for about 15,000 people born in Mexico. By comparison, about 21,000 Texas births were certified in 2004 by midwives, an integral, though shrinking, part of South Texas culture.
The issue is receiving new urgency because of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which requires a passport to cross the U.S.-Mexico land border starting in June. A similar requirement for air travel last year led to a surge in applications for passports and a massive processing backlog.
The nine ACLU plaintiffs include David Hernandez, 43, of Harlingen, Tex., a hotel worker who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and served four years in the U.S. Army but was denied a passport after a wait of nearly a year.
The State Department rejected his birth certificate, requiring him to provide other proof. Hernandez submitted his baptismal certificate, state immunization records, public school records, affidavits from his mother and another woman who had witnessed his birth, and his Army discharge certificate.
But in a letter dated April 8, the department told Hernandez that he had "not fully complied with the request for additional information and/or documentation" and that his application was being "filed without further action."
U.S. officials would not say how many passport applications are handled this way without explanation to applicants, under a February rule change.
"I felt heart-sickened," Hernandez said in an interview, adding that his mother is a legal permanent resident and that her mother was a U.S. citizen. "I've always been told I'm a citizen, all my life," he said.