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Government says, ‘Sorry, no passport’
The U.S. State Department is supposed to issue passports to people who can provide documents showing they were born in the United States. But it has begun rejecting birth certificates, mostly belonging to Latin@s born in the Southwest, that were signed by midwives—in other words, if the applicants were born at home.
In that area, people cross the border frequently to work, for family and business reasons, and even to obtain health care in Mexico that would be unaffordable in the U.S.
Thousands of people are now frantically seeking other documentation to obtain passports, since they will be required for all travel to and from Mexico and Canada starting in June 2009.
The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health has condemned this move as “a racist and unfair practice, which ... unfairly targets Latino citizens on the border and those who were born to parteras or midwives in private residences, a common practice among Latinos.”
The passport rejection is part of a wave of anti-immigrant policies that include mass round-ups and deportations, the building of a wall along the Mexican border, and calls for laws that would deny citizenship to U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.
David Hernandez enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1985, using his birth certificate as proof of citizenship. But now the State Department will not issue him a passport based on that same birth certificate without further proof, even though he also provided his military discharge papers. (Brownsville Herald, Sept. 14)
In September, nine U.S. citizens, including Hernandez, sued the federal government for refusing to issue them passports because of the midwife issue. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which alleges that the State Department unfairly targets Mexican Americans, essentially reducing them to “second-class citizenship status.”
The government, according to the lawsuit, is systematically asking for an excessive number of documents that most people would not possess, such as school or baptismal records, or documents that never even existed. Then, after the applicants go to great lengths to supply additional proof, “the State Department often doesn’t accept it and deems the applications abandoned—‘filed without further action,’ or essentially closed.” (TheOregonian, Oct. 5) According to immigration lawyer and former passport agency employee Brent Renison, the agency has turned customer services over to private contractors.
Midwives, or parteras in Spanish, have been delivering babies in the Southwest since before hospital births became the norm. Births with parteras continue in that area today as a traditional practice, although the current problem with obtaining passports is scaring many women away from this safe alternative to medicalized hospital births.
In the South, midwives served Black communities with skill and dedication until the mid-1960s, when Medicaid and the end of legally segregated facilities made hospital births available to African-American and poor white women. Denying the validity of midwife-signed birth certificates could be used to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Black people in the South if voter ID laws are enacted.Resurrecting ‘segregation-era injustice’
Ellen Catalinotto, a New York-certified nurse midwife, sent the following letter to the State Department:
“As a midwife, I am appalled to learn that the State Department now refuses to accept the validity of birth certificates signed by midwives who attended women at home births as legal documents for obtaining a U.S. passport.
“This unfair and racist practice targets Latinos and African Americans, who have had a long tradition of midwife-attended births. It is creating havoc, especially in Texas and the Southwest, where many people frequently travel to Mexico and now find that they cannot obtain the passports that will soon be required to cross that border.
“Just 45 years ago there was no Medicaid or Medicare to pay for health care for poor or disabled pregnant women. Segregation was the law of the land in southern states—where only whites could be admitted to most hospitals. Rural areas had few good roads to transport women in labor. Many African-American and Latina women could not afford to deliver in hospitals, could not get transport to the hospital in labor, and could be denied admission to the hospital even if they overcame the hurdles of cost and travel. Midwife births at home were the only option for women in these circumstances.
“To deny the validity of midwife-signed birth certificates is to resurrect and continue these injustices and human rights violations of the not-so-distant past.
“Furthermore, refusing to accept midwife-signed birth certificates puts the State Department in the de facto position of regulating our profession by delegitimatizing the documents we are legally authorized to sign. The State Department clearly has no right or authority to regulate midwifery practice.
“The excuse given for not recognizing these birth certificates is that some midwives were convicted of falsely providing them to babies born in Mexico. Some of these cases occurred as long ago as almost 50 years. Such instances should be handled by local jurisdictions on a case-by-case basis, with a presumption of innocence. Instead, the State Department is imposing collective punishment on every midwife and every baby she has delivered.”
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