August 2008 was a banner month for passports. They played a significant role in world events that garnered them rare publicity. Two of the events demonstrated how easy a government can make it to get passports and one demonstrated how difficult it can be.
In August, Russia and Georgia got into an argument over whether Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be allowed to leave Georgia and become independent or should remain part of Georgia. For the last several years Russia has been issuing passports to residents of South Ossetia, thus bestowing Russian citizenship on the holders. Thus, when invading South Ossetia, Russia was simply going to the aid of its citizens, albeit many of them Russian-come-lately. (If George Bush were clever he would have issued passports to Iraqis prior to invading their country and then announced he was simply acting to protect United States citizens.)
China, too, issued passports in furtherance of national objectives. In November 2007 an associated press release described the success of a young girl gymnast, He Kexin. He was one of the stars at China’s Cities Games in November 2007. Xinhua, the Chinese Government’s news agency reported on her success in those games and said she was 13 years of age. Olympic rules require that for a gymnast to compete in Olympic games the gymnast must attain age 16 in the year in which the games take place. For He to leap over the years that separate 13 from 16 in a mere 9 months was something that not even a gymnast as accomplished as she could hope to accomplish. It was accomplished instead by issuing a passport. In 9 months He aged 3 years and her team became the first Chinese women’s team to win a gold medal in gymnastics. Passports can, of course, be withheld in furtherance of a country’s foreign policy, as the United States showed.
A law that goes into effect next year requires anyone crossing between the United States and Canada or Mexico to present a passport instead of a birth certificate or driver’s license. As a result the thousands who cross borders daily because of employment must now obtain passports. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that many United States citizens who were born in South Texas are having difficulty obtaining passports.
Ordinarily a passport can be obtained by furnishing the issuing authority a certified copy of a birth certificate, acceptable identification and the appropriate fee. Whereas Russia made it easy for people in South Ossetia to get passports, the State Department has made it difficult for people in South Texas to get theirs. A birth certificate is not always accepted because the State Department has learned that some people in South Texas have fake birth certificates. Those people were delivered by mid-wives and some of the mid-wives were convicted of forging birth certificates for children born not in South Texas but in Mexico. The forgeries may have affected as many as 15,000 people.
Although people in South Texas can vote, become border-patrol agents or president of the United States, they may not obtain passports without additional proof that they were born in the U.S.A. Here are some of the things these presumptively non-citizens can do to satisfy the State Department. They can obtain affidavits or testimony from the mid-wives who delivered them, assuming the midwives can be found and can remember whom they delivered dozens of years after the birth. They can produce newspaper announcements of their births or they can produce hospital records going back dozens of years to show they were treated in the hospital if, indeed, they were. Juan Aranda is someone who has been unable to get a passport and here is what he has done.
Juan submitted all the required documentation and when he was turned down sent in school records going back 38 years showing that his kindergarten records recited that his birthplace was Weslaco, Texas. He sent in a picture of his kindergarten class that included him. He sent in a baptismal certificate with a church seal reciting he was born in that town. He explained that pre-natal medical history was unavailable because his mother was too poor to have pre-natal care.
The State Department told Mr. Aranda that he hadn’t “fully complied with the request for additional information” and he should start the process to become a naturalized citizen. Instead, Mr. Aranda hired a lawyer. If his lawyer is successful it may soon be as easy for an American citizen to get an American passport as it is for a Georgian citizen to get a Russian passport. Mr. Aranda’s success would be remembered as another example of the courts being invoked to protect the citizens of the United States from the administration of George W. Bush.
CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: Brauchli.firstname.lastname@example.org