No Passports, No Freedom of Movement for Many Mexican-Americans
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Texas native David Hernandez, a former marine who served his country in different parts of the world, can no longer see the world after his country denied him a passport.
Hernandez and other residents living in and around the U.S.-Mexico border are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit alleging that, in denying them passports, the U.S. State Department is engaging in a new kind of racial discrimination: non-citizen profiling.
"This all started when I sent them (the U.S. State Department) my passport and they sent me a letter saying that it wasn't sufficient. So, I sent them all kinds of documents -a baptismal certificate, military records, pictures of me in the pre-kindergarten, a copy of my grandmother's birth certificate that showed that she was an American citizen," he said, adding, "and that still wasn't enough. I knew something was wrong when they even started asking me for things like Census documents from the 1930's that don't even exist."
Hernandez and the other plaintiffs say that the U.S. government is denying them passports because they are persons of Mexican and Latino descent whose births were assisted by parteras, or midwives. "The law says that if you're born in this country, have parents who are or who get naturalized, you are a citizen," said Hernandez his voice cracking with anger and frustration. "We were all born here. We're all citizens. The only difference is that we're Hispanic, we grew up poor and we happened not to be born in a hospital. My mother had to pay a partera $40 instead."
Lawyers for Hernandez and the other plaintiffs say they have documented a systematic pattern of racial discrimination among hundreds, perhaps thousands of people of Mexican descent who, like him, applied for passports and were subjected to unreasonable and arbitrary demands for an inordinate and often impossible-to-find documents proving they are citizens of the United States.
For Robin Goldfaden, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is co-counsel in the case along with other law firms, the passport suit "shows a spirit of disregard for birthright citizenship and a reckless disregard for the actual citizenship of an entire class of people."
Goldfaden pointed out that although midwifery is a long-held tradition among whites, blacks and others living in Appalachia, Texas and other parts of the United States where hospital-assisted birth is unaffordable or unavailable, the denial of passports is only taking place among people of Mexican descent living along the southern border.
"Some of the plaintiffs in this case were born in the 1930s and earlier, when, for example, half of all babies in Texas were delivered by midwives," said Goldfaden, who believes that the case raises concerns beyond those raised by Hernandez and other plaintiffs. "Anytime the government violates due process and the constitutional promise of equal protection as they did in this case, we should all be concerned."
The passport case comes on the heels of intensified efforts to fundamentally alter the definition of who is and isn't a citizen. For several years, members of Congress and anti-immigrant groups in Texas and several other states have proposed state and federal laws denying birthright citizenship to the U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants. Some Texas residents like Father Mike Seiffert also trace such practices to the long history of denying citizenship to different categories of people in the United States.
"I was born in Alabama" said Seiffert, who is pastor of the San Felipe de Jesus Catholic church in Brownsville, "and I've seen this kind of discrimination before; I've seen government officials trying to deny rights to people by not recognizing them as citizens, only here in Texas it's not African Americans, but Latinos."
Seiffert became aware of the passport denial issue in his church. "After a couple of the members of my congregation came to me concerned and even crying because they were denied passports and would no longer be able to see their families in Mexico, I decided to ask the congregation if there were others facing similar situations," Seiffert said. "And 60 people came up and said they had the same passport problem."
He called what happened to members of his congregation affected by the passports situation "disgraceful." Behind the tears, he said are, "Many members of our congregation (who) won't be able to do what they've done for decades: cross the border to see their families; many won't be able to sustain themselves by doing business as they've always done in Mexico," he said. "There's no hospital around here and when you drive many miles to get health care, it's very expensive. So people will also be denied basic healthcare because they will no longer be able to go just across the border to get cheap medicine or see a doctor in Matamorros for $15. This is deeply disturbing and it reminds me of Alabama."
And like in the deep South, the non-citizen profiling in Texas is also inspiring activism among many. "I grew up studying the history of civil rights, Martin Luther King and how he had to fight his own government," said Hernandez, " But I never thought I'd be fighting for my civil rights. Now I understand history in a different way."
Roberto Lovato, a frequent Nation contributor, is a New York-based writer with New America Media.