State Department denying passports to people on the Texas border, demanding proof they were really born here

Maybe you’ve seen this story from the Washington Post floating around today. It’s headlined: “U.S. is denying passports to Americans along the border, throwing their citizenship into question.” The problem with this headline is that it assumes the thing at issue, i.e. that these folks are Americans. At first glance it certainly appears that way:

On paper, he’s a devoted U.S. citizen.

His official American birth certificate shows he was delivered by a midwife in Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas. He spent his life wearing American uniforms: three years as a private in the Army, then as a cadet in the Border Patrol and now as a state prison guard.

But when Juan, 40, applied to renew his U.S. passport this year, the government’s response floored him. In a letter, the State Department said it didn’t believe he was an American citizen.

As he would later learn, Juan is one of a growing number of people whose official birth records show they were born in the United States but who are now being denied passports — their citizenship suddenly thrown into question. The Trump administration is accusing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Hispanics along the border of using fraudulent birth certificates since they were babies, and it is undertaking a widespread crackdown on their citizenship.

If you only read the headline or stopped reading the story at this point, you’d be left with the impression that the Trump administration was pursuing some kind of racist policy based on a whim. But eventually, the Post gets around to explaining why this is happening. They key is in that line I’ve highlighted above:

The government alleges that from the 1950s through the 1990s, some midwives and physicians along the Texas-Mexico border provided U.S. birth certificates to babies who were actually born in Mexico. In a series of federal court cases in the 1990s, several birth attendants admitted to providing fraudulent documents.

Based on those suspicions, the State Department during George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s administrations denied passports to people who were delivered by midwives in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. The use of midwives is a long-standing tradition in the region, in part because of the cost of hospital care…

A 2009 government settlement in a case litigated by the American Civil Liberties Union seemed like it had mostly put an end to the passport denials. Attorneys reported that the number of denials declined during the rest of the Obama administration, and the government settled promptly when people filed complaints after being denied passports…

The story quotes someone who says these cases are “skyrocketing” under Trump, but no hard numbers are provided in the story, only the suggestions that it could potentially impact thousands of people connected to certain midwives or to one specific doctor said to have delivered as many as 15,000 children in the area.

Those whose citizenship is challenged are asked to provide additional documentation, such as evidence their mother had prenatal care in the U.S. prior to their birth. Frankly, I doubt I could come up with proof like that even with my mother’s help. So I can see why this would be frustrating to Americans who are stuck having to deal with this.

On the other hand, some of these cases are genuine instances of a kind of fraudulent identification. How can you tell the difference without asking for additional verification? The settlement in the 2009 case brought by the ACLU seemed focused on making sure there was a consistent set of rules applied to how those applications were handled. Does that mean a new administration can’t alter those rules? I suspect it won’t be long before the ACLU announces a new lawsuit in the case.