Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Valley residents sue government after being denied passports

By A.J. Anderson
Rio Grande Valley resident David Hernandez fought back tears as he described the difficulties he had applying for a passport.

BROWNSVILLE, September 10 - Nine U.S. citizens from the Rio Grande Valley are suing the federal government, claiming they were discriminated against when applying for a passport.

Attorneys representing the nine plaintiffs say roadblocks were put up by the State Department because the citizens have a Hispanic surname and were born to a midwife.

On Tuesday, plaintiffs David Hernandez from San Benito and Juan Aranda from Weslaco spoke before a group of community members and media to share their story and explain the basis of the lawsuit.

They were joined by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, Washington, D.C.-based Hogan & Hartson LLP, Refugio del Rio Grande, Inc., of San Benito, and the Rev. Mike Seifert of San Felipe de Jesus Catholic Church in Cameron Park.

The case involves Mexican American citizens who have applied for passports in advance of next year’s policy change, when passports will be required to travel to Mexico by land.

The State Department says it has tightened up security since 9/11 and vets the applications thoroughly because the Valley has a higher than average number of midwives who have been convicted of fraud.

Introducing the case, Robin Goldfaden, of the ACLU’s Immigration Rights Project, stated that “there was a clear pattern to the problem faced, and who was facing that problem: Mexican Americans delivered by a midwife in a Southwest border state, and Texas in particular.”

The state department lumped people in this category together, Goldfaden said, and subjected them to “unreasonable, burdensome and excessive demands for evidence of their birth in the United States, evidence which few people would actually possess” when they applied for a passport.

Attorney Lisa Brodyaga with Refugio del Valley explained that the types of documents requested by the government ranged from “easy to obtain, such as baptismal records, to difficult, to impossible.” Some institutions do not exist anymore, such as old schools or clinics, making some records impossible to acquire for elderly people.

Following the surge in passport applications for border residents who want to travel to Mexico, Refugio staff encountered a surge at their doorstep of those “who had received letters from the Department of State saying that their applications had been closed, or ‘filed without action’ because they either did not respond to the demand for these documents or they did not respond fully.”

Goldfaden said the applicants spent a great deal of time, effort, and money obtaining documents that were not being required of other applicants. She said the applicants were not specific with details of how to remedy the situation, thereby leaving the applicant with no passports and no hope of obtaining one.

“The constitution would not allow this,” Goldfaden said. “The state violated the law in three areas: it is a violation of due process – people should be judged by a fair, proper, non-arbitrary standard – a violation of equal protection, and it is arbitrary and capricious.” The government is clearly breaking the law, the attorney claimed.

“What the lawsuit seeks is a fair and legal process, in a way that is fair, non-discriminatory, individualized, and under the proper scrutiny that all other applicants are given,” Goldfaden said.

Seifert said he fully supports the legal proceedings of those filing suit. A few months back he held a community meeting on the subject and expected half a dozen people to show up. Instead, dozens filled the room to tell their “horror” about applying for passports. Seifert said the residents were angered at the way they were treated by the State Department.

“We put up with a lot, but we don’t put up with being humiliated. I think that’s been the sense of people who made these applications – they’re giving up on the process” because they’re being targeted for being born to midwives, meaning that family was too poor to afford to go to the hospital.

As the parish priest, Seifert hears a lot of anguish from his parish, such as families not being able to “see grandmother,” or “go to the doctor.” Seifert added: “It’s a blow to the heart of our community, not to mention the financial difficulties.”

Hernandez and Aranda told similar stories of how difficult it was to apply for a U.S. passport. Hernandez was born and baptized in San Benito, Texas, to a midwife, and has spent nearly his whole life in the U.S. He asserted that he is “a lawful abiding taxpayer,” who has “social security” and is “a registered voter.” He always thought he was an American citizen, and had no reason to ever question that until he applied for a passport in light of new laws requiring passports for travel between Mexico and Texas.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of American,” he said, holding back the tears. He said he has repeated that phrase all his life, and feels pride in his country. “I served my country in the Army and have worked ever since.” He feels he is a model citizen.

Along with many others this year, Hernandez applied for a passport to travel outside the country. He has family in Monterrey he would like to visit. He received a letter stating that he was not being granted a passport. “I rarely travel to Mexico but I would like to travel whenever I want. If they’re doing this to me then I’m sure they’re doing it to a lot of citizens,” Hernandez said.

Aranda, from Weslaco, has lived in the Valley his whole life. He said he is proud to be an American. “I support my troops and teach my kids to be proud to be American,” he said. Aranda applied for his passport because he does work in three states in Mexico and because “Mexico is part of our culture.” His family goes there regularly, especially on weekends.

After applying for a passport, Aranda said he received a letter requesting more information. He said he can’t believe the government refuses to believe his birth certificate. It has made him wonder about what his citizenship really is – he knows he’s an American, but his own country is denying him a passport. Aranda just wants to be treated fairly.

Lisa Graybill, legal director with ACLU Texas, believes this case is worthy of her group’s attention because of its clear injustice. “Although our office is based in Austin we’re very connected to this area and to doing more work here on the border, so we’re honored to be here and work with these folks.”

Adam Levin, of the law firm Hogan & Hartson, came to the Valley with colleague Melissa Henke. Levin said his firm has “a long tradition of service to the community and free legal service.” All six attorneys involved in the case said they are committed to winning this cause.

Anyone in a similar situation who would like to be part of the lawsuit should call 415-343-0784, or e-mail More information can be obtained at

Source: Rio Grande Guardian


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