On Wednesday, a few hours after the Washington Post reported that the State Department was denying American passports and initiating deportation proceedings against U.S. citizens in the Rio Grande Valley, a friend texted me a screen shot from the story. The passage she highlighted read:
Babies delivered by Jorge Treviño, one of the regions most well-known gynecologists, are also being denied. When he died in 2015, the McAllen Monitor wrote in his obituary that Treviño had delivered 15,000 babies.
It’s unclear why babies delivered by Treviño are being targeted, and the State Department did not comment on individual birth attendants. Diez, the attorney, said the government has an affidavit from an unnamed Mexican doctor who said that Treviño’s office provided at least one fraudulent birth certificate for a child born in Mexico.
“This is the doctor who delivered me,” my friend told me.
Parts of the story are familiar to people in the Valley. Getting a passport could be fraught in the past, with certain people who were delivered by midwives in the region having to provide additional documentation verifying citizenship when applying. (The Obama administration settled a lawsuit with the ACLU around the practice in 2009, six months after assuming power.) Everyone in the Valley is familiar with having to affirm their citizenship when leaving, too, when crossing the interior border checkpoint in Falfurrias. As a white person, that usually means slowing down, rolling down the window, and saying “yes, sir” when asked if I’m a citizen. For my darker-skinned friends, it often involves showing documents and answering questions about where they got the car they’re driving. In unspoken ways, there have long been certain classes of citizenship for Americans along the border.
The tone of how we talk about and treat immigrants in this country has taken increasingly harsh turns over the past few years, which has heightened that sense of different classes of citizenship. From “they’re sending rapists” to the travel ban to the broken promise to the Dreamers to family separation, it’s become clear that certain people aren’t particularly welcome in Trump’s vision of America. And the renewed focus on verifying citizenship for passport applicants—which seems to be coming from a State Department casting a much wider net than in the past, and which is taking the previously unheard-of step of initiating deportation proceedings against Americans who have no other citizenship (where are they supposed to go?)—represents a turning point. Now, an immigrant could well be whomever the administration says it is.
The slippery slope of how we got here is fairly clear. The issue the Trump administration is looking at involves people who were delivered by certain doctors or midwives in the Rio Grande Valley who are suspected of having forged birth certificates for babies born in Mexico. Some of them may have done that, certainly—fraud and corruption do happen, so it’s plausible that there are some babies who were born in Mexico who are walking around with American birth certificates. And for years, the debate around the Dreamers, those beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival policy, centered around the fact that they were brought into this country as small children, through no fault of their own, who knew no other home and who lived their whole lives as Americans. The idea that they deserved a path to citizenship has never been particularly controversial—at various points in the recent past, Paul Ryan, John Cornyn, and Donald Trump have all expressed agreement with it, even as they’ve declined to take policy action to make it happen. When Trump announced that he’d be ending the DACA program, though, the frame of the program as a compassionate one with broad support changed—suddenly, we were arguing about whether Dreamers deserve to stay in the country.
Once deporting Dreamers became an acceptable position, it hasn’t been a far leap for people to argue that the same should be done for American citizens who they merely suspect are here illegally. The evolution of what goes from unthinkable to government practice can move quickly.
I moved to the Valley from Indiana when I was 18, and most of my friends from the area are in the same group as the people identified in the Post—Latinos with U.S. birth certificates who are somewhere between their late twenties and early forties. Most of them can’t name who delivered them at birth (how many people can?), but the recognition that this is something new, and that it affects all of them regardless of whether they’re first-, second-, or tenth-generation Americans is becoming clear. As one friend of mine put it, it represents a policy of weaponizing doubt that Latinos from the border can ever be truly American.
Shortly before my friend texted me on Wednesday night, she talked with her mom about the kind of records that people in the Washington Post story had been asked to provide to prove their citizenship—rental agreements that their parents had at the time they were born, evidence of prenatal care from American doctors, baptismal records, other documentation that most people don’t necessarily hang on to for decades. She said her mom was looking for those kinds of records, but she wasn’t confident that those documents would ultimately make a difference. There’s real and justifiable concern that this policy is just the latest salvo in an ongoing campaign to redefine who belongs in this country. “The U.S. government does seem out for blood,” she told me.
The fact that American citizens who’ve done nothing wrong have real cause to believe that the U.S. government is targeting them is an urgent problem. When people argue against the Dreamers, the argument tends to take the position that, if Dreamers’ parents hadn’t broken the law, they wouldn’t be in this position. That’s an argument with a basis in logic, if not in compassion—in America, we don’t punish children for the transgressions of their parents—but in these cases, there’s not even logic to it. Lyndsey Fifield, social media manager at the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation, argued on Twitter that, under another president, the story would be about the health care professionals suspected of breaking the law:
If this piece had been written in the Obama era its headline and framing would rightfully attack the midwives who ruined countless lives with fraudulent birth certificates but lol who am I kidding nobody would have written this in the Obama era. https://t.co/S7KOxd1luJ
— Lyndsey Fifield (@lyndseyfifield) August 30, 2018
The problem with her frame, though, is that the people bearing the consequences for the actions of anyone who forged a birth certificate are all of the children they delivered—not the people accused of the actions themselves. “We don’t punish children for the transgressions of their parents” is a moral argument. “We don’t punish children for the transgressions of the health care professionals who attended to their births” is just common sense.
Fifield is correct that a story like this could have been written under a different administration. But both the scope, and the potential consequences, of what the Trump administration is doing is new. And the context of the Trump administration’s attitude toward immigrants—or toward the descendants of immigrants who live in South Texas—is relevant, too. Deportations were high under Obama, but Trump’s rhetoric has changed things. It’s harder to give an administration that revoked DACA or separated children from their parents at the border the benefit of the doubt that this isn’t part of an ongoing campaign to exclude people who don’t fit a particular vision for who belongs in America.
That’s what talking to people from the Valley, no matter who delivered them at birth, makes clear. There’s a sense that the rules are changing rapidly, and that every tool that the government has could well come to bear against our own citizens. A lot of people I know are getting additional documentation together that can help prove that their birth certificates are authentic, but not many of them are convinced that it will matter. If birth certificates aren’t good enough, how can they be confident that the government won’t decide that the old apartment lease from 1983, or the prenatal records their mom stashed in a folder thirty years ago, won’t be declared fakes, too?
First, the administration came for immigrants. Now, they’re expanding who “immigrant” refers to, so that it’s a group that could well include U.S. citizens who were born in this country. Right now, the people feeling the brunt of that are Hispanic people of a certain age, who were delivered by someone the administration has flagged, who live in the Rio Grande Valley. But at this point, there’s no reason to believe that this will stop with them.