In the United States, it’s taken for granted that being born in this country automatically makes you a American citizen. After all, most Americans support the notion of birthright citizenship since it was established by a 1898 Supreme Court case brought on by a Chinese American man and by virtue of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment. Most Americans assume there’s a clear-cut line between legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants, between citizens and noncitizens, and naturalized citizens and those native born.
On Wednesday, August 29, 2018, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration have told “hundreds, even thousands” of Latinos born near the US-Mexican border that their US birth certificates aren’t sufficient proof of US citizenship to get their passports approved or renewed. Making matters worse, they’re being subjected to ridiculous document requests like baptismal records and insulting questions like “Do you remember when you were born?” Some are having their passports revoked and being thrown into deportation proceedings, or even barred from reentering the United States when they tried returning to Mexico.
Nonwhite and immigrant Americans already know that the Trump administration lacks any respect for them as Americans or as human beings. In this context, denying passports to native-born citizens can seem like racism at best and state violence at worst. Generally, the Trump administration’s immigration actions aren’t shocking because they’re unprecedented power grabs. But rather efforts to aggressively use the executive branch’s existing powers which simply have been used with more restraint in the past. As an escalating effort started by past presidents, this story is no exception. Since the Trump administration has shown a knack and xenophobic zeal for finding parts of the immigration system giving the federal government the most power and bringing their full strength to bear on already vulnerable people like South Texan Chicanos.
The new wave of passport scrutiny is specifically targeted at South Texan Latinos born near the US-Mexican border in particular circumstances. According to the State Department, “the U.S.-Mexico border region happens to be an area of the country where there has been a significant incidence of citizenship fraud.” This sounds very racist, playing into suspicions that even Latinos who’d been living in Texas before it was America aren’t even American, along with conflations of Latinos as well as legal and undocumented immigrants.
But there’s a particular history behind it, though racism is certainly a part of such policy. In the latter half of the 20th century, the federal government cracked down on South Texas midwives for birth certificate fraud like signing a birth certificate attesting to delivering a baby on US soil, when the baby had actually been born across the border in Mexico. Between 1960 and 2008, at least 75 South Texas midwives were convicted of fraudulent activities.
Of course, the problem is that these midwives also signed a bunch of birth certificates for children actually born on US soil. In addition, there aren’t easy ways to distinguish real US births from false ones, especially when most families in infrastructure-poor and poverty-stricken South Texas couldn’t afford a hospital birth. Confusing matters even further, some families reportedly received birth certificates saying their US-born children had been born in Mexico, to allow them to attend public schools there. Since before the last 2 decades, it wasn’t uncommon for families to frequently travel between the US and Mexico, or even split time between the 2 on a weekly basis.
In 2007, the US changed the law: from 2009, it would require everyone coming into the US from anywhere in the Western Hemisphere to show a passport (including American citizens coming from Mexico). As that change approached, area Latinos began complaining about their passports being denied due to their birth certificates deemed as suspicious. This resulted in an ACLU filing a lawsuit in 2008. The next year, the two sides agreed to a process by which passport denials to midwife-born applicants would be reviewed. One of the settlement documents was a sample letter requesting more information from the applicant to supplement the record. Some of the listed items were faintly ridiculous like baptismal records or evidence of prenatal care. But others were straightforward, if often difficult like requests for school and employment records.
However, even after the 2009 settlement, rejections of midwife-issued birth certificates continued. In 2012, CNN wrote an article about the matter. In 2014, NPR’s Morning Edition ran a segment featuring accounts of people having their passports snatched while trying to enter the US, being harassed by Border Patrol agents, and being forced to agree to their own deportation.
What’s changed under Donald Trump mostly seems to be the scope of the denials. Not only has there been a “surge” in new denials, as well as of people actually put into deportation proceedings (which ICE officials can choose to do when a passport is denied for absence of evidence for US birth. But they don’t have to do it). In addition, the government appears to have expanded its “suspicions” not just to midwife-signed birth certificates, but also those signed by South Texas obstetrician Jorge Treviño who delivered thousands of babies, often in home births before his death in 2015. Since the government has an affidavit from an anonymous Mexican doctor alleging that Trevino falsified a birth certificate.
But perhaps most importantly, this is happening under Donald Trump who doesn’t have much goodwill toward immigrants, Latinos, or white liberals. Thus, the report has raised concerns not only of the harassment facing particular South Texan passport applicants, but how broadly the Trump administration could challenge citizenship and voting rights of other groups as well. When most Americans see clear cut lines pertaining to legal status and citizenship, the Trump administration often sparks outrage for doing things that appear to cross these lines. They’ve arrested undocumented immigrants at their green card interviews. They’ve begun an effort to comb old naturalization applicants for fraud, in an effort labeled a “denaturalization task force.” They’ve tried to end DACA, putting its 800,000 recipients’ legal status in a constant state of uncertainty. And now they’re questioning the citizenship of people who’ve lived in the US for decades as native-born US citizens.
However, more disturbingly, in all these cases, the Trump administration isn’t crossing an unprecedented line. It’s just merely exploiting places where the category boundaries are murkier and often by building on what past administrations have already done. Generally, these boundary areas are where immigration officials show the most caution. They have the discretion in who they pursue and who they don’t. At the margins, they’re more likely to use discretion to show sympathy to people who’ve been living in the US and have roots here. Even if they could be more aggressive in trying to push them out. It’s possible that the government has changed its policy across the board on birth certificates issued by midwives or other “suspicious” practitioners or more broadly even people born in the US to noncitizen parents, though there’s no evidence of that. It’s also possible the government hasn’t changed its policies as the government claims, just fighting more of the individual cases falling under the process the 2009 settlement set.
But what makes Trump officials’ immigration policy different isn’t necessarily what they’re doing, but how aggressively they’re doing it. The Trump administration doesn’t have to deny every or even any application from anyone whose birth certificate was signed by a “suspicious” practitioner. Yet, it’s using the power’s full extent given by law. So it’s easier to put pressure on groups that already have been targeted because they’ve already been targeted.
Nonetheless, targeting South Texan passport applicants isn’t necessarily a test run for an inevitable expansion to widespread revocation of citizenship or nonwhite Americans writ large. Since denaturalization efforts don’t automatically call all naturalized Americans’ citizenship into question. This remains crucially true because targeted people have recourse to the legal system. And even South Texans whose citizenship is challenged usually win their cases though they have to appeal to federal courts to do it which usually costs thousands of dollars and time. However, that’s the other thing about pushing on those already marginalized. They’re the ones least likely to have the resources to overcome harassment or the support to call an end to the practice.
However, make no mistake that Donald Trump understands his base. Sure many working class Trump supporters have real concerns since real wages haven’t increased and those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. Not to mention, they know full well that their lives seem harder than their parents. But they also angry and want someone to blame. And it can’t be people who look like them since they see these money-grubbing robber barons as beacons of hope that their lives may improve, instead of the corporate con artists preying on their misery. In Hispanic immigrants and their children, Trump has a perfect scapegoat. Steve Bannon remarked in an interview that Trump won on “Pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.” It’s no coincidence that Trump once whips up fears by trying to strip vulnerable people of their citizenship and imply to his base these people shouldn’t be here and are right to be concerned about immigration fraud. We should also note how Trump got into politics by promoting birtherism and called President Barack Obama’s birth certificate a fraud after he showed it. Revoking passports may not be illegal, but they’re nonetheless dehumanizing, especially when the individual is a South Texas Latino who’s lived in the US their whole life.