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David Hernandez is crying alone in an empty field. There used to be a house here; it's where he was delivered by midwife Albina Pedraza 44 years ago. The home is gone. And with it, proof that Hernandez was born in the United States.
For Hernandez, tracking down as much of his past as possible and proving he was born on South Milam Street in San Benito, Texas means the difference between getting a passport or being a prisoner in his own country.
Hernandez's shoes crunch over the dead, yellow grass. He feels like a criminal, though he can't figure out what he's done wrong. As far as he can tell, his only sin is being delivered by a midwife less than 20 miles from the border.
After serving in the U.S. Army and living a pretty average American life, he just wants his passport. But the State Department won't give it to him. There is a history of midwife deception along the border, so the U.S. government has to be sure applicants are not using fraudulently filed birth certificates. Thus far, Hernandez has not convinced them that his is the real McCoy.
Hernandez first applied for a passport a year and a half ago in response to the announcement of a post-9/11 terrorism prevention law that kicks into effect this summer, requiring all citizens to show a passport when traveling abroad in the western hemisphere.
Hernandez doesn't have plans to wing off to the beaches of Jamaica any time soon, but needs his passport in case he wants to visit relatives just south of the border. He's spent more than a thousand dollars hunting down as much evidence as he can find. So far, it's been money wasted.
He's submitted records that show he was baptized, immunized and attended high school in Texas; he even has a letter from the Mexican government saying he wasn't born there. None of it has mattered. The problem, it seems, is that midwife Pedraza's name appears on what's known as a "suspicious list" — an inventory kept by the U.S. government of midwives convicted of or suspected of birth certificate fraud — and so his passport application has been flagged, requiring him to prove to the U.S. government's satisfaction that he was in fact born in the United States.
The State Department asked Hernandez for a birth announcement in the local newspaper. San Benito did not have a newspaper when Hernandez was born. The government asked for his early school records, but the Harlingen school district did not keep Hernandez's elementary school file. The Texas Midwifery Board has no record of Pedraza because it does not maintain records prior to 1983. Pedraza died in 1983. Making matters more difficult, his mother is the only competent witness left to his actual birth. Of the two other witnesses, his godmother is dead and his godfather has Alzheimer's.
"This has been a real wild-goose chase," says Hernandez. "You send in everything you can find, then they won't give you a passport, but they don't tell you what you do need to give them in order to correct the situation and get one. It's nothing less than a witch hunt."
In his car parked across from the empty lot, Hernandez carries a photo album: pictures of him dressed up as a Christmas bell for a school pageant, playing guitar in a garage band, running drills during basic training and downing beers with army buddies while stationed in Germany. It almost smacks of a 1950s U.S. propaganda film directed by Norman Rockwell.
After Hernandez received his fourth letter from the government refusing to issue him a passport despite all the evidence he'd sent in, he jumped on board a class-action lawsuit filed in September by the American Civil Liberties Union against the State Department.
"It's a civil rights issue," says Hernandez. "They're not doing this to people born to midwives in northern areas of the country. And it's a little discriminatory. Sure, there's the fraud they say happened with some midwives in the past, but they're holding me and others in my situation accountable for somebody else's mistake that had nothing to do with me."
After walking around the lot where his midwife's home used to sit, Hernandez heads over to the neighbor's house. The man in the driveway introduces himself as Carlos Gil and says his wife happens to be related to Pedraza. Gil says that after the midwife died, her home was abandoned and gutted by homeless people and drug users. When it was finally demolished, all of Pedraza's papers, proof that she delivered countless babies, had vanished.
In many ways, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was the spark that lit the fire. A result of recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission and aimed at strengthening border security, the law will now require all U.S. citizens as of June 1, 2009, to carry a passport with them when traveling to nearby countries, including Mexico, that previously did not require a passport.
When the deadline was announced in March, the State Department was flooded with passport applications, many from residents along the border who previously never needed one. The issue began gathering national attention when applicants with Hispanic last names delivered by midwives started getting denied and the ACLU filed the lawsuit claiming discrimination.