BROWNSVILLE — Immigration attorneys are seeking class-action status for a lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection that could have widespread implications along the U.S.-Mexico border. The issue involves U.S. citizens who say they were held for long hours at ports of entry in South Texas and denied entry into the country after they presented birth certificates registered by midwives.
CBP officials are apparently referring U.S. citizens to further inspection if their documents show their births were attended by midwives in the United States, court records in the lawsuit state. Officers are accused of interrogating people for hours, on suspicion of holding fraudulent documents, and of threatening them to sign "confessions," which say they were falsely registered as born in Texas, according to court filings.
Once those detained are declared inadmissible into the country, CBP officials confiscate all of their documents and return them to Mexico, immigration attorneys said.
"Most people are totally unaware of this risk, which is why they fall into this trap," said Elisabeth Lisa Brodyaga, one of the lead attorneys in the case that was filed in September in a Brownsville federal court. "We still do not know how often it is happening. The problem is that when it happens to someone they end up in Mexico, cut off from access to counsel."
CBP officials are not at liberty to discuss any cases under litigation, CBP spokesman Eddie Perez said. But in general, the process at the port of entry can be cumbersome for officials, he said.
"We try to cover every base. We want to make sure every person we process is clear to enter," Perez said. "Sometimes that process is long; sometimes it is short."
The lawsuit follows a series of complications for people delivered by midwives in the Rio Grande Valley and along the Texas-Mexico border, the most recent of which came to light with the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, now in effect since June.
The travel security measure requires all U.S. citizens to present passport books, passport cards or other initiative-compliant documents when crossing into the country from Mexico by land.
But for years the U.S. Department of State had been arbitrarily rejecting hundreds of passport applications from people whose births were attended by midwives, citing a history of forgeries for Mexican-born children in South Texas dating back to the 1960s, immigration attorneys said.
Immigration attorneys say they saw a steady stream of cases in which the department sent applicants in bureaucratic circles, asking them to provide all sorts of additional proof of their citizenship — from birth announcements to high school yearbook pictures. The problem finally incited a class-action lawsuit filed against the Department of State by the American Civil Liberties Union and immigration attorneys representing citizens denied passports.
In a settlement agreement last year, the department agreed to instate new procedures and training for officers taking passport submissions. But while the settlement won victories for some applicants, many people’s passport requests remain in limbo, said immigration attorney Jaime Díez, who is working on the case with Brodyaga.
And now the contest over U.S. citizenship for those still waiting for passports is playing out at international bridges. For many born with the assistance of midwives, the same issues that have held back their applications with the Department of State are causing CBP officers to suspect they hold fraudulent documents, immigration attorneys said.
"But these are issues that should be handled in a courtroom, not the port of entry, where people do not have access to counsel nor their constitutional rights," Díez said.
At international bridges, people apply for entry into the United States and are not considered U.S. citizens. Thus, people do not have constitutional rights and are more vulnerable, attorneys said.
Some who are still waiting for their passports and may face interrogation at ports of entry are those whose applications were denied outright by the Department of State because a convicted midwife issued their birth certificate. Since 1960, 75 Texas midwives have been convicted of falsely registering Mexican-born babies as U.S. citizens.
Most of the women made declarations in court admitting they had committed fraud, but most of their clients were not notified of their statements in the past and are just now battling the allegations in court, Díez said.
"The problem is determining which birth certificates are false and which are not," he said. "(Immigration officials) should not assume that every child these women delivered was born in Mexico."
Others whose applications remain in question are U.S. citizens, mostly seniors, who have delayed birth certificates, or documents registered a few days after their births as was customary in the past. And those who might have the highest risk to confront obstacles at international bridges are U.S. citizens who were also registered for Mexican birth certificates by their parents, a common practice along the border for years, especially among families who wished to raise their children in Mexico.
Trinidad Muraira de Castro, a litigant in the lawsuit against CBP, obtained such falsified Mexican birth certificates for her daughters, Laura Nancy and Yuliana Trinidad de Castro, seeking to enroll them in a Matamoros school, Brodyaga said. In statements, she and her daughters describe how CBP officers kept them for about 11 hours at the Brownsville and Matamoros International Bridge after Yuliana presented a birth certificate issued by a midwife and her passport application receipt — documents that fall under WHTI requirements and should enable her to cross.
They were taken into rooms for individual questioning and harassed, the women write in their statements. Out of fear, Trinidad signed a false confession stating that her daughters were born in Matamoros, she wrote.
"The instant case is not an isolated instance, but a window into the cases of dozens, if not hundreds, of similarly situated persons," immigration attorneys contend in court documents.
The American Civil Liberties Union has not yet become involved with this case. For now, however, attorneys are advising passport applicants who have unsolved issues with the Department of State and have not received their documents to refrain from crossing.
"This issue is tearing families apart," Díez said. "Unfortunately, I feel we are only seeing the beginnings of this problem."