By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Father Michael Seifert is the pastor of San Felipe de Jesus Church in one of the poorest sections of Brownsville. When he became aware of the passport problems some of his parishioners were having, he called a meeting to discuss the issue.
"I thought we'd get 15 to 20 people," he says. "We had 60 people. They sat there for four hours telling these stories, everything from their child was selected to be in a chess tournament overseas and their parents couldn't get a passport to go, to a guy with a trucking business who was desperate and didn't know what to do. A lot more people are affected than I thought."
The practice of midwifery is as old as Texas, owing its deep roots to Mexican culture.
"Here on the border," says ex-council member Zavaleta, now an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, "being delivered by a midwife has been one of the most common modalities for delivery that's historically ever existed. When Mexican nationals, whether they were legal or illegal, would come to the United States, they'd see signs in almost every neighborhood that said, 'Se tendien partos,' or 'We deliver babies.' In fact, it was more common to be born by a midwife than in a hospital. The passport issue is very shortsighted of [the government], not understanding how the culture and society works here along the border."
Seifert points out that "it's not like the people here need a passport to go to France. Here, living near the border, it's everyday lives, it's jobs, it's family. It's sad to hear people say, 'Starting in June I'll never see my grandmother again. What's my crime? I did everything right. I'm a citizen. Why?'"
Ortiz is trying to answer these questions and fix the problem. He's introduced a bill in Congress that would forbid passport officials from considering the applicant's race, ethnicity or ancestry, would make a state-authorized birth certificate sufficient evidence to get a passport and would require that any denial letter must state the reason for the ruling.
The bill died in the last legislative session, but Ortiz vows he will resubmit it.
Meanwhile, other Texas politicians in Washington are keeping mum on the issue. Republican Senator John Cornyn's press office did not respond to a request for comment. Matt Mackowiak, the spokesman for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, also a Republican, e-mailed the Houston Press saying, "I think we'll decline, thanks though."
But now is not the time to turn a blind eye, says Guerrero.
"We're getting a fair amount of calls about this now," he says. "but next year, as the deadline gets closer, we're anticipating a lot more."
Marina Ramirez works the assembly line packaging turkeys at a processing plant 200 miles south of the Canadian border in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, nearly a nation away from South Texas. She's lived there for more than 30 years and raised a son, Hector, who also works at the turkey plant. She says she was born in San Benito in 1946. Now 62, she thought she was finished with her past.
Soon after the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was announced, Ramirez wanted to make sure she'd be able to take her yearly trip to visit family in Mexico, so she sent her Texas birth certificate and $75 to the passport agency. Her application was denied.
More surprised than concerned, Ramirez went about trying to find additional documentation. She came up empty.
Her parents, witnesses to her birth, have died. School records do not exist because she did not go to school. The only supporting U.S. document she was able to find was her baptismal certificate.
In hindsight, Ramirez shouldn't have been surprised that her passport application didn't initially sail through. Her birth certificate is riddled with red flags: She wasn't delivered in a hospital; the only signatures on the birth certificate are of her father and a man she doesn't know; and it was filed late — around the same time she was baptized — more than three years after her birth date.
Ramirez never had any reason to doubt that she was born in Texas. But the State Department wrote her a letter in August saying Mexican records show that someone with Ramirez's name and her parents' common surnames (Jose Perez and Petra Hernandez) was born in Mexico one year to the day before the date stamped on her U.S. birth certificate. She didn't know what to do or think.
"She says she was confused," says Hector, translating for his mother, who only speaks Spanish. "She always believed that she was a U.S. citizen, so this made her feel very bad. She was losing hope and became afraid."
Problems similar to Ramirez's and Hernandez's are popping up all over the country. Newspapers from Oregon to Florida report stories of lawsuits and angry, confused passport applicants. The one thing in common: They were all born in Texas.
This, however, is where Ramirez's story differs from those of many others trying to get passports.
In February, the State Department notified the Texas Department of State Health Services not to issue Ramirez any copies of her birth certificate due to the fact, they said, that she had an earlier birth certificate on file in Mexico. The feds also refused to send Ramirez back the copy she'd sent them to get her passport. Her only choice was to request a hearing with Texas officials to try to prove her birth certificate was legitimate.