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The State Department is Denying U.S. Citizens Passports

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September 9, 2008

For most of us, getting a passport is a pretty straightforward process. Go to the post office for an application, fill it out, get a picture taken, make a copy of your birth certificate, write a check for $100 and mail it in. A few weeks later, voila! Passport!

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for thousands of U.S. citizens living along the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) has been quietly carrying out a policy that discriminates against U.S. citizens of Mexican descent who live along the border and whose births were attended by midwives or took place at a local clinic.

If you’re unfortunate enough to fit into these two categories, when you apply for a passport, the DOS will likely question your U.S. citizenship, and tell you to submit a litany of other documents—including school records, a local newspaper’s birth announcement, your mother’s pre-natal care records, baptismal certificates, immunization records—all documentation that isn’t required of any other U.S. citizen applying for a passport, to prove your citizenship. After forking over as many of these documents as you can find, and often paying more fees—DOS will respond by abandoning your application and classifying it as “filed without action.” Passport denied.

So today, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas filed a lawsuit against the DOS challenging this arbitrary and discriminatory policy. The lawsuit argues that the way in which the U.S. State Department is deciding whether to issue passports to American citizens is a violation of both the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution.

This lawsuit comes at a critical time. Starting next June, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) will require a passport to cross all land and sea borders. This new requirement is problematic for border state residents who have family or jobs in Mexico and who cross the border regularly for affordable medical care and prescriptions. Previously, U.S. citizens only needed a state-issued ID to cross the border into Mexico.

Take the situation of one our plaintiffs in the lawsuit, David Hernandez. David was born in San Benito, Texas, to an 18-year-old mother who could only afford the services of a midwife to deliver him. David grew up and was schooled in Texas, and after graduating high school, served a decorated three-year stint in the U.S. Army. When he applied for a passport, the DOS gave him the runaround. They asked for a newspaper clipping announcing his birth: San Benito didn’t have a newspaper. They asked for pre-natal care records: his mother couldn’t afford pre-natal care. He submitted his baptismal certificate and school and immunization records. But they weren’t enough.

So despite his U.S. birth, three years serving in the U.S. military and fulfilling the extra documentation requests, David is still without a passport. You can listen to a podcast of David telling his story, and learn more about the lawsuit, Castelano v. Rice, on this webpage.

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