The Trump administration is reportedly accusing hundreds of Hispanics who live along the U.S.-Mexico border of using fraudulent birth certificates, and denying some of them passports, according to The Washington Post.
The State Department said in a statement to the Post that it “has not changed policy or practice regarding the adjudication of passport applications,” adding that “the U.S.-Mexico border region happens to be an area of the country where there has been a significant incidence of citizenship fraud.”
But immigration lawyers tell the Post they’ve seen a surge in cases of the government denying passports to people with official U.S. birth certificates who were born near the border.
In some cases, these Americans have been jailed in immigration detention centers and faced with deportation. Others who traveled to Mexico have had their passports revoked when they tried to return to the U.S.
Jaime Diez, an immigration attorney in Brownsville, Texas, tells PEOPLE he’s had around 20 clients who are U.S. citizens who have had their passports taken away.
He notes that he was able to help each client get his or her passport back, and recommends that anyone who has their passport denied or revoked ask to speak to an attorney and prepare to file a lawsuit.
“If they get their passport denied or revoked, they need to go ahead and gather their story and evidence and file a lawsuit,” he says. “You have five years to file a lawsuit to show you were born in the United States.”
“If they happen to be detained by immigration authorities, I’ve had people who were locked in a room and were forced to admit they were not born here and we’ve been able to overturn those things,” he continued.
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Although immigration authorities can’t strip people of their passports without taking them to court, Diez claims some officials “tell people things that are not true and hold people in a room for 20 hours, sitting on a cold table, telling them, ‘You are not born here, you are not born here, but if you sign here you can go.’ “
Diez also notes that many people trying to reenter the U.S. from Mexico have had their passports taken away.
“We have a lot of people detained at ports of entry, they are coming back from Mexico and they find out their passport has been cancelled and they are told cannot come back,” he says. “If you are in Mexico, you have to contact an attorney.”
Hassan Ahmad, a Virginia-based immigration lawyer, tells PEOPLE that the “most important piece of advice is, don’t take this lying down.
“Be proactive about proving your case before it becomes necessary,” he says. “The first thing is to run their immigration history by counsel before any of this happens … to see what proof they have: Did they derive citizenship, did they acquire citizenship, were they naturalized, were they born in the United States?
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he says.
According to the Post, the State Department says these passports are being denied based on suspicion of fraudulent birth documents. The department declined to say how many passports it has denied due to these concerns.
Passport applicants “who have birth certificates filed by a midwife or other birth attendant suspected of having engaged in fraudulent activities, as well as applicants who have both a U.S. and foreign birth certificate, are asked to provide additional documentation establishing they were born in the United States,” the State Department said in its statement to the Post.
The government has long suspected that some midwives and physicians working along the U.S.-Mexico border from the 1950s to the 1990s gave U.S. birth certificates to babies born in Mexico. In federal court cases in the 1990s, several midwives admitted to providing fake birth certificates.
Under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, these suspicions led the State Department to deny passports to some people delivered by midwives in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the Post reports.
After the government settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2009, the number of passport denials declined.
But now, according to the Post, there has been a surge in passport denials under President Donald Trump, who has made cracking down on both legal and illegal immigration one of his signature issues.
Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, has pushed back against The Washington Post‘s story, saying “the facts don’t back [it] up.”
“This is an irresponsible attempt to create division and stoke fear among American citizens while attempting to inflame tensions over immigration,” she says. “Under the Trump Administration, domestic passport denials for so called ‘midwife cases’ are at a 6-year low. The reporting is a political cheap shot.”
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, says the ACLU is investigating the situation and potential legal recourse.
“The Trump administration’s attempt to deny passports to long-term American residents living in border areas is just one more inhumane act in a series of unlawful actions,” he says.
Adds Andre Segura, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, “For South Texans, a passport is a necessary part of life. These communities work, shop, seek medical care, and have families on both sides of the border. The ACLU challenged this practice a decade ago to ensure that arbitrary and discriminatory passport denials would stop. We cannot let such a blatant attack on the civil rights of Americans stand.”
Diez advises Americans birthed by a midwife to immediately apply for a passport if they haven’t already. “And if there is a request for evidence and they deny you, you have to go and see an attorney,” he says.
Ahmad recommends that citizens who already have passports keep it in their possession at all times.
“And if having that proof of U.S. citizenship is not accepted by the law enforcement officer, in the end there is going to be a legal battle and at least at that point the person will be able to say, ‘I showed them prima facie proof of my citizenship and they detained me anyway,’ ” he explains. “At least it gives them a leg up in a subsequent lawsuit.”
Ahmad says that while the policy needs to change, for now it’s important to spread awareness that even some people who have lived and worked in the U.S. their whole lives are having their citizenship called into question.
“It doesn’t mean people need to live in fear but the fact remains that if a U.S. citizen comes up and asks me, ‘Should I be carrying my passport around?’ I can’t say in good faith that you don’t need to — not given the fact there is a denaturalization task force and people’s birth certificates are being questioned.”