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WESLACO, Texas — In the archives of local institutions, Juan Aranda’s life is firmly rooted in this small south Texas town.


WESLACO, Texas — In the archives of local institutions, Juan Aranda’s life is firmly rooted in this small south Texas town.

His birth certificate says he was delivered unto Weslaco 38 years ago, and church records say he was baptized here soon after. School files list him as a student in the local district from kindergarten through high school, and voter rolls show he votes for president here.

But to the U.S. State Department, all that black and white looks a lot like gray. It recently refused to issue Mr. Aranda a passport; the government isn’t sure he’s an American.

“I never imagined my U.S. citizenship would be questioned,” says the manager at a water company. “I’ve lived here since the day I was born.”

The problem is that Mr. Aranda was delivered by a midwife at a private home. Parteras, Spanish for midwives, have been part of life in Hidalgo and Cameron counties along the border with Mexico from the time of the Texas Republic and before. But in the early 1990s, dozens of midwives were convicted of forging U.S. birth certificates for about 15,000 children born in Mexico as far back as the 1960s.

As a result, the U.S. government no longer trusts that anyone in this region delivered by a midwife is an American citizen. In those cases, the government demands additional proof — a demand that has applicants scouring school warehouses and church offices to document their pasts.

That has caused a panic in south Texas, where locals need a valid passport more than ever. A new law that goes into effect next year requires Americans to use a passport, rather than just a birth certificate or driver’s license, to visit Mexico and Canada. The situation threatens to isolate thousands of people in the Rio Grande Valley who regularly travel back and forth to Mexico for work or family reasons.

“Usually a state-issued birth certificate is sufficient to establish U.S. nationality,” says Michael Kirby, a senior official for consular affairs at the State Department. But, given the fraud committed by some south Texas midwives, “we want to be careful that we issue passports to everybody who is eligible and not to anyone who isn’t,” he says, acknowledging that thousands of passport applicants could be affected.

“These people aren’t planning to tour Europe,” counters Jaime Diez, an immigration attorney in nearby Brownsville. “Going back and forth to Mexico is a way of life here.” Among his clients is a U.S. border-patrol agent. “These are people…who have passed security checks for government jobs,” Mr. Diez says.

Desperate for Evidence

Desperate for evidence that they were born on U.S. soil, passport applicants born as far back as the 1930s come into the Cameron County Clerk Office in Brownsville to search for their midwives’ whereabouts, in hopes that the aging women can testify for them, says Lettie Perez, deputy county clerk.

“Most of the midwives are gone,” says Ms. Perez, throwing her hands in the air.

Mr. Kirby acknowledges that digging up evidence “might be difficult for somebody born 40 or 50 years ago.” Passport adjudicators, he says, “are trying to make the right call in each individual case. It’s hard.” The State Department doesn’t disclose how many people have been asked for additional proof, and the agency denies that it is targeting Hispanics.

Back in 1969, Juan Aranda’s mother, Mexican immigrant Cupertina Espinoza, worked as a live-in housekeeper for Fela Hinojosa. The Hinojosas owned a flower shop called La Perla, which still stands on the main street of Weslaco.

“I started working for them when I was about three months pregnant,” recalls Mrs. Espinoza, 69. She had come north to make a living after her husband died in a car accident in Mexico and settled in this town of modest clapboard homes.

One of a string of towns in the Rio Grande Valley that grew up along the railroad, Weslaco, population 30,000, reflects life on the border. While its strip mall and Wal-Mart are quintessentially American, the mom-and-pop stores and Spanish signs are straight out of Mexico.

Mr. Aranda’s birth on April 11, 1970, was attended by midwife Manuela Bazan. Ms. Bazan signed the baby’s birth certificate and filed it with the Hidalgo County registrar, as required by law. On April 26, Mr. Aranda was baptized at St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in Weslaco, according to parish records. His mother rented a tiny apartment nearby.

Last year, Mr. Aranda, a father of three who wears cowboy boots and frequently says “y’all,” applied by mail for a passport, enclosing two photographs and his birth certificate. As a supervisor for a small U.S. company that filters and sells drinking water in Mexico, he needs the passport to continue making his frequent business trips south of the border when the new rules take effect next year. “My job depends on it,” says Mr. Aranda.

He received a letter from the State Department’s national passport center stating that “upon review, we have determined that further information is needed to support your claim of birth in the U.S.” The letter listed documents — his mother’s prenatal medical care in the U.S., a newspaper announcement of his birth in the U.S. and his parents’ U.S. school records, among other things — that could be used to bolster his request.

Mr. Aranda sprang into action, driving to a school district warehouse on the outskirts of town to collect records dating to kindergarten, which cite Weslaco as his place of birth. Mr. Aranda also obtained a baptismal certificate with a church seal that states he was born in the town. His mother tried to find her midwife, only to learn that Ms. Bazan — who wasn’t one of the midwives accused of wrongdoing — died several years ago.

Eva Gonzalez, the church secretary, says that she has been issuing baptism records at the rate of 30 a week for passport applicants. “I have people coming in here crying,” she says. “Ladies are saying, ‘I was born here and have lived here all my life, but the government doesn’t believe me.’ ” Ms. Gonzalez’s own mother, who was delivered by a midwife 75 years ago, is among those caught in the confusion. She says federal agents also visited recently to inspect church ledgers for fraud.

No Recourse

Since the adjudicators don’t formally deny a request, but only request more evidence, applicants who are refused passports don’t have any recourse to appeal within the State Department.

“We started seeing people in droves,” says local lawyer Lisa Brodyaga. The attorney, who has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several applicants, says: “I can’t take any more calls.”

Ms. Brodyaga says that the State Department is making “outrageous and unreasonable demands” on people delivered by midwives, such as seeking birth listings in census data going back seven decades. The American Civil Liberties Union is considering joining the lawsuit, for which class-action status is sought.

In January, Mr. Aranda sent the school and baptism records to the State Department with a note explaining why he didn’t have the additional documents. For example, he wrote that his mother “did not have the resources” for prenatal care. His mother, meanwhile, amassed what she could: a discolored document attesting to the first loan she ever took out — for $10 — shortly after her son was born in 1970; she found his immunization records and pictures from the local elementary school.

In early February, Mr. Aranda received a letter from the government, saying that he hadn’t “fully complied with the request for additional information.” The letter advised Mr. Aranda to learn about “procedures for your possible naturalization as a U.S. citizen” and closes: “Once you obtain U.S. citizenship, you may execute another application for a U.S. passport.”

Mr. Aranda began looking for an attorney.