In its zeal to rid the United States of people living here illegally, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has long crossed lines of decency and propriety — from detaining the undocumented in jails regardless of whether they pose a flight risk or a public safety threat to, more recently, separating parents from their children at the border to try to deter families from entering.
And not just immigrants are affected by these zero-tolerance policies. This year the Los Angeles Times reported that some 1,500 American citizens had been detained for deportation in error, often because investigators messed up the identifications. One example: After investigators mistook his father, a Jamaican-born American citizen, for a noncitizen with a similar name, a New York man spent 1,273 days in detention before he finally persuaded the government that he was, indeed, a U.S. citizen.
Now comes a report from the Washington Post that the government has revived a practice of denying passport applications and renewals from hundreds of people of Mexican descent living along the Rio Grande. Why? Because they had been born with the assistance of a midwife at home or in a community health center rather than at a regional hospital, a not uncommon practice in remote and impoverished areas where health services can be hard to find. Unfortunately, some of the midwives had fraudulently attested that a few Mexican-born babies had been delivered on the U.S. side of the border, improperly qualifying them for citizenship. During the George W. Bush administration the government began questioning the citizenship of thousands of people simply because they had been delivered by one of the handful of midwives who had committed fraud.
Civil rights groups rightly sued in 2008 on the grounds that those targeted were being denied due process and were being singled out because of their ethnicity. In a 2009 settlement, the government promised to better train staff and set clearer directions on processing passport applications, including no longer relying solely on the presence of a midwife at the birth to justify questioning the legitimacy of a birth certificate. Now, under the Trump administration, it appears those onerous practices have returned with a vengeance.
Even people born under the care of a Texas gynecologist, Dr. Jorge Trevino, have had their passport applications rejected. The government didn’t comment to the Post on why that doctor’s patients had been flagged, but in this administration, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether the births would be questioned if the doctor’s name was Smith.
This is more than an inconvenience for those affected. With their passports revoked and their citizenship questioned, some have been jailed pending deportation proceedings, an outrageous act of injustice. Americans seeking to return to the U.S. from Mexico have been stranded, and people who need to cross the border for work or to visit family members cannot do so legally. Ironically, some of those affected by the denials are border agents.
The Post’s report, of course, is just the latest revelation about an immigration policy under President Trump that defies basic humanity and long-standing practices. ICE agents have resumed showing up in California courts to arrest people making appearances there on suspicion that they are in the country unlawfully, a practice that California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye described as “disruptive, shortsighted, and counterproductive” and “damaging to community safety and disrespects the state court system.” People who fear that taking part in the court system will draw them into the reach of immigration agents and get them deported are less likely to answer summonses, file for restraining orders or testify in trials — the kind of engagement that benefits society.