Birthrights on the border

By Michelle Chen Jun 27, 2009

Under the State Department’s new passport rules, even people born on the “right” side of the border have to worry about their papers. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect June 1, requires Americans passing across the Canadian and Mexican borders to have a valid U.S. passport or passport card, instead of just a valid driver’s license, as previously required. The new policy affects many communities in the Southwest for whom border crossing is a routine occurrence, and whose economic and cultural life stretches across the official divide imposed by governments. The travel requirements especially impact Mexican Americans born on the U.S. side of the border who face difficulties producing the documents needed to obtain a passport. Civil libertarians filed a lawsuit last year charging that the passport process was unfair and discriminatory. Essentially, the procedures were biased against Mexican Americans born outside a hospital, with the help of a midwife, by requiring “an excessive number of documents normally not required to prove their citizenship.” The government recently settled the case, pledging to revise its application review procedures. Midwifery is a common, traditional way of child birth in many communities, including rural areas where hospitals may be scarce. The bureaucratic rules, the ACLU argued, basically penalized midwife-born Mexican Americans for the way they were brought into the world. The ACLU cites the example of David Hernandez, who was born in San Benito, Texas in 1964. He had presented the government with his baptismal birth certificate, childhood immunization records, and affidavits from his mother and the daughter of a witness attesting to his birth. But Hernandez, an army veteran, still wasn’t able to qualify for a passport. The ACLU said that potentially thousands of Mexican Americans in the Southwest could face the same challenges. Hernandez recalled in an interview:

I’ve always believed that my birth certificate was my paperwork for all that. I come from a very poor Mexican mother, and she was only 18 years old. I tried to get all the information that they asked for… an early birth picture, or medical records, prenatal records, and [we had] no records because my mom was poor.

In response to the settlement, Lisa Graybill of the Texas ACLU stated:

We are relieved that US citizens who work, shop, receive medical care, and have family on both sides of the border will no longer be in danger of losing their jobs, risking their health, or being separated from family members simply because of the circumstances of their birth.

Well, that may be a bit of a stretch. Mexican Americans in the Southwest are still subject to myriad forms of discrimination, more or less regardless of citizenship status. And the border, by its very nature, continues to force families and communities apart. But at least now, people’s citizenship is less likely to be unjustly challenged just because they were born the wrong way. Image: Todd Korol / Reuters