State Department: Passport denials at 6-year low

The State Department has asserted that passport denials for citizens living along the U.S.-Mexico border are at a six-year low, refuting recently published reports claiming a surge under the Trump administration.

Jaime Diez, a Brownsville immigration attorney, told the Texas Tribune recently that it appears the Trump administration is taking a closer look at U.S.-born citizens born in South Texas, specifically those delivered by midwives.

He said he currently represents dozens of U.S. citizens who were denied their passports or had their passports suddenly revoked, some of whom served in the U.S. military.

Lisa Brodyaga, a Harlingen-based immigration attorney who runs the nonprofit organization Refugio Del Rio Grande, has worked with Diez on approximately 100 cases involving U.S.-born citizens delivered by midwives.

Brodyaga, who has been practicing immigration law for four decades now, said she’s seen an increase in denials as well.

“I wouldn’t call it a surge but there is definitely an increase, not only in the number (of denials), but in the degree of stupidity and indifference in (the State Department’s) issuing of the denials and revocations,” Brodyaga said.

She said that passport denials of U.S. citizens is not a new trend, but does think the process for citizens is now more stringent.

“It used to be you filed a lawsuit and the government would depose the parents and maybe another witness or two, and if they were satisfied they would tell the department of state, ‘Go ahead and issue the passport.’ That almost never happens anymore,” Brodyaga said. “Now almost everybody has to go to trial. There is definitely a difference in their general approach — they’re harder to please, (but) it’s not impossible. Sometimes it appears they really don’t care if the person is a citizen or not.”

The longtime attorney said some of the actions seem discriminatory — targeting mostly the Hispanic population.

“I think they’re looking for any excuse to deny them,” Brodyaga said. “You have this strand of nativism that has been set free; I really do think that’s what this is about — these are all brown people.”

If accurate, a surge in denials under the Trump administration would be fitting of an administration that has made its presence felt in the South Texas region, with border wall construction proposals slated to tear through environmentally sensitive areas like the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the National Butterfly Center, and La Lomita Chapel — all in the western-Valley city of Mission.

South Texas was also ground zero for the “zero tolerance” policy, implemented by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the policy resulted in the separation of children from their parents at the Ursula detention center in McAllen. It’s where the Texas National Guard is currently stationed, placed there under pressure from the Trump administration, which cited an increase in illegal immigration as justification for the military presence.

Still, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert denied the national media’s reporting in a prepared statement.

Nauert said the Washington Post’s report that passport denials “appear to be surging under the Trump administration,” is untrue.

For its part, the government claims that for decades, beginning in the 1950s, some midwives and physicians along the Texas-Mexico border issued U.S. birth certificates for babies actually born in Mexico.

“Midwives falsely reporting births in exchange for compensation is an old problem that is not unique to the Trump administration. In fact, the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama denied passports in these cases as a result,” the spokeswoman said.

She also said passport denials for “midwife cases” are at a six-year low, according to a State Department release.

“Twenty-eight percent of these passport cases were denied in 2017 compared to 36 percent in 2015 under the Obama administration. Based on the current numbers for the year, the department continues to show a decline in denials to passport applicants — the lowest rate of passport applicant denials in six years,” Nauert stated in the release.

She claimed reports of a surge is an effort to incite panic in the country.

“This is an irresponsible attempt to create division and stoke fear among American citizens while attempting to inflame tensions over immigration,” Nauert said. “Under the Trump Administration, domestic passport denials for so-called ‘midwife cases’ are at a six-year low. The reporting is a political cheap shot.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged passport denials more than a decade ago and eventually forced a government settlement, said it was investigating the claims of a surge.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said the organization is considering potential litigation.

“The Trump administration’s attempt to deny passports to long-term American residents living in border areas is just one more inhumane act in a series of unlawful actions,” Gelernt said in a news release from the organization.

Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, said the passport denials disproportionately affect South Texans.

“For South Texans, a passport is a necessary part of life. These communities work, shop, seek medical care and have families on both sides of the border. The ACLU challenged this practice a decade ago to ensure that arbitrary and discriminatory passport denials would stop,” Segura said in a prepared release.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, released a statement Friday regarding the reports of “Hispanic Americans” being denied U.S. passports.

He acknowledged the issues with the midwives in past years, but argued this should not result in generalizations about other U.S. citizens’ status.

“When you question the authenticity of documents issued by the federal government, and second-guess the citizenship of targeted demographics in a border region, or Spanish speakers in a non-border region, you are moving this country in a questionable direction,” Gonzalez said in the release. “The idea that because some few people falsified documents, has created a presumption that all documents issued in a region are to be questioned is like saying someone is guilty until proven innocent.”

The congressman said he will work on legislation to address the issue with the State Department to prevent and end what he characterized as a “discriminatory practice.”

“I plan to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to utilize our powers of congressional oversight and end these unwarranted actions that have gone on for far too long.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, also issued a statement in response to the passport denial reports, acknowledging his office is providing insight to American citizens born through a midwife on how to provide “supplemental information and documentation” to receive their passports.

“While this has been an ongoing issue, we have been working diligently to support our constituents and provide them with the services and guidance for them to receive their passports,” Cuellar said in his statement, which also acknowledged an “increasing number of citizenship fraud cases” in the southern part of his district. “We must ensure that we continue to take proactive measures at addressing citizenship fraud.”

With regard to adhering to the passport approval process, Cuellar reminded citizens that “immunizations and school records, baptismal certificate, mother’s legal status at time of birth” can all help grant them their passports.