September 9, 2008

Lawsuit accuses feds of discriminating against Valley passport applicants

Kevin Sieff (The Brownsville Herald)

BROWNSVILLE -- The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the federal government Tuesday alleging the U.S. Department of State is discriminating against South Texas passport applicants delivered by midwives.

ACLU lawyers called the State Department's policy a categorical violation of human rights. According to the lawsuit, applicants are forced to go to unreasonable lengths to prove their citizenship - often in the form of obscure or antiquated documentation.

"They're asked for evidence that in some cases never existed in the first place," ACLU attorney Robin Goldfaden said.

State Department officials say Rio Grande Valley residents are being scrutinized due to the history of fraudulently granted birth certificates in the region. According to a list compiled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at least 75 South Texas midwives have been convicted of fraud since the 1960s.

"Since 2001, we've made our procedures a lot more secure," Cy Ferenchak, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, told The Brownsville Herald in July.

The lawsuit, which the ACLU filed together with Washington, D.C.-based law firm Hogan & Hartson and Harlingen-based Refugio del Rio Grande, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group, suggests the State Department is acting on "blanket race-based suspicion" in denying due process and equal protection to thousands of South Texans.

The lawsuit is reportedly the first the ACLU has filed from the Valley. The organization opened an office in San Juan in February.

Although the lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. District Court in McAllen on behalf of nine plaintiffs, lawyers have applied for class-action status, which would allow them to represent a larger group of South Texans.

One of the original plaintiffs, San Benito native David Hernandez, served in the U.S. Army in the 1980s and was stationed abroad for several years.

"The birth certificate was good enough for the Army," he said, "but I guess it's not good enough to get a passport."

Because of a new federal requirement, passports will be required beginning in June 2009 for U.S. citizens who want to cross the border.

Hernandez wonders how he will get to Monterrey, Mexico, where many of his relatives live.

"I would have liked to see them when I needed to," he said. "But I'm being treated different. That's not equality."

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