Murky records cloud crackdown on fake passports
By LYNN BREZOSKY
BROWNSVILLE -- Maria Teresa Payan de Castillo's parish priest blogged
about her plight, referring to her as "Mother Teresa" and urging people
to write their congressperson to save a U.S. citizen from deportation.
De Castillo, 40, claimed that like many in South Texas, she'd been born
with the assistance of a midwife. She had previously held a passport
based on a U.S. birth certificate and thought she had a renewal in
progress when she was arrested re-entering the country from Matamoros,
But now the U.S. government not only was accusing her of lying, but had
thrown her in jail for fraud.
"There are some things that pierce the heart," Mike Seifert, known in
the community as "Padre Mike," wrote in his blog. "Seeing a desperately
sick child in a hospital room; observing the grief of those burying a
loved one; watching a proud woman, bound in chains, have to stand
before a federal judge."
Not long after the blog posted, de Castillo entered a plea bargain,
saying she had been born in Mexico as Maria Rosario Castellano.
A November Department of Justice press release touted the case, which
court records show involved wiretappings, surveillance, and witnesses
"Payan's arrest and prosecution should serve as a warning to those who
would lie about themselves in order to obtain a passport," said Marian
Cotter, special agent in charge of the Diplomatic Security Service's
field office in Houston. "The Diplomatic Security Service is both
tireless and patient in pursuing these crimes."
The outcome in the de Castillo case so far appears isolated; at least
four others who sued the government have since proven to be U.S.
citizens and gotten passports.
The key obstacle is that as of June 2009, a passport or passport card
will be needed to cross the border, and Mexican-Americans that make up
the bulk of the population in the Rio Grande Valley are accustomed to
crossing frequently to visit family, go to the doctor, and often work.
Many, particularly older ones, were born outside hospitals. As such,
they are subject to heightened probes by the federal government, which
has identified such reported births as ripe for fraud.
De Castillo's story is murky, even to Seifert.
"They said they were going to make an example of her," he said. "I'm
thinking, an example of what? I just don't understand what the witch
hunt is about. What if a thousand people were born to midwives? I don't
know of any terrorists coming out of that group."
Kathleen Walker, an El Paso immigration attorney who is past president
of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she expects more
confusion as the June deadline approaches.
"A lot of people have problems documenting that they were born in the
U.S., and then, just because you're born in the U.S., doesn't mean the
government's going to trust that birth certificate," she said. "For
example, if you're born on an Indian reservation, the birth records are
often not recorded. Or you have someone who's elderly, they just don't
have documentation. Everybody knows that they were a member of the
community for all this time, but there's no documentation to prove it."
Danny Guerra, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Brownsville,
said the congressman plans to re-introduce a bill from late last
session that seeks individualized assessment and prohibits "heightened
burden of proof."
"From what we're gathering, it's subjective," he said. "Anyone who was
born through midwives, whether on a fraud list or now, it's
automatically causing red flags."
Accusations of racism
The American Civil Liberties Union calls it racist.
In September, the ACLU joined an international law firm and the local
Refugio del Rio Grande, Inc. in filing a class-action lawsuit based on
nine Rio Grande Valley residents who were denied passports after
reporting being born by midwives.
Since a news conference on the lawsuit, scores of other people, from
throughout the United States and mostly born near the Texas-Mexico
border, have called the ACLU with similar stories, ACLU attorney Robin
An exhibit in the lawsuit is a government list of suspect midwives.
Goldfaden said the list itself is disturbing. "You have this very
troubling phenomenon of the government meeting behind closed doors and
compiling this list," she said.
The Department of State and its Diplomatic Security Service did not
respond to requests for comment.
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