In the archives of local institutions, Juan Aranda’s life is firmly rooted in this small south Texas town.
His birth certificate says he was delivered unto Weslaco 38 years ago, and church records say he was baptized here soon after. School files list him as a student in the local district from kindergarten through high school, and voter rolls show he votes for president here.
But to the U.S. State Department, all that black and white looks a lot like gray. It recently refused to issue Mr. Aranda a passport; the government isn’t sure he’s an American.
The problem is that Mr. Aranda was delivered by a midwife at a private home. Parteras, Spanish for midwives, have been part of life in Hidalgo and Cameron counties along the border with Mexico from the time of the Texas Republic and before. But in the early 1990s, dozens of midwives were convicted of forging U.S. birth certificates for about 15,000 children born in Mexico as far back as the 1960s.
As a result, the U.S. government no longer trusts that anyone in this region delivered by a midwife is an American citizen. In those cases, the government demands additional proof—a demand that has applicants scouring school warehouses and church offices to document their pasts.
That has caused a panic in south Texas, where locals need a valid passport more than ever. A new law that goes into effect next year requires Americans to use a passport, rather than just a birth certificate or driver’s license, to visit Mexico and Canada. The situation threatens to isolate thousands of people in the Rio Grande Valley who regularly travel back and forth to Mexico for work or family reasons.
Desperate for Evidence
Desperate for evidence that they were born on U.S. soil, passport applicants born as far back as the 1930s come into the Cameron County Clerk Office in Brownsville to search for their midwives’ whereabouts, in hopes that the aging women can testify for them, says Lettie Perez, deputy county clerk.
Since the adjudicators don’t formally deny a request, but only request more evidence, applicants who are refused passports don’t have any recourse to appeal within the State Department.