Harsh Reality: Faulty midwife practices has the federal government questioning border residents' citizenships - Brownsville Herald: News

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Harsh Reality: Faulty midwife practices has the federal government questioning border residents' citizenships

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Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008 12:00 am

Not more than a mile from the Rio Grande, in a quiet neighborhood dotted with statuettes of the Virgen de Guadalupe and leafy ash trees, Mireya Salgado is searching for the house in which she was born.

Driving down Shary Avenue, she tries to imagine the scene: the long delivery, the midwife lifting a baby girl from her mother's womb. The images dance in Salgado's head like an old film.

More than five decades have passed since her birth. When Salgado finds that the address on her birth certificate no longer exists, she pulls her gray pickup to the side of the road and hangs her head.

She had returned to Shary Avenue to find the midwife who attended her delivery - a last ditch effort to prove the legitimacy of her birth certificate and her American citizenship.

Along with thousands of other Rio Grande Valley residents, Salgado is now being denied a U.S. passport because of two details of her birth: the presence of a midwife and the proximity to the Mexican border.

"After 56 years, it's like they're questioning whether my citizenship was a big mistake," said Salgado, now a 10th-grade English teacher at Porter High School. "I was born here. My mother was born here. This is the only place we've known."

The federal government isn't convinced.

In June 2009, as a part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a passport will be required to travel into Mexico, where much of Salgado's family lives. With that date approaching - and the number of passport applications rising in the Valley - the government is cracking down on applicants.

Officials suspect that many South Texans who were delivered by midwives are applying for passports with fraudulent birth certificates. Some of them, officials say, were actually born in Mexico.

For many Valley residents who were delivered by midwives, a more common practice in previous generations, the tougher security standards in a post-9/11 world are bringing dilemmas they never could have imagined. The federal government is pressing these border residents to essentially prove their U.S. citizenship all over again if they hope to gain a passport.

Salgado is one of those Americans feeling the frustrations of the new regulations. A small notation on her birth certificate reads, "Attendant at birth: Midwife." It is the same document she used to successfully apply for a voter's registration card, a driver's license and a Social Security number.

As the daughter of a U.S. citizen, Salgado never expected that proof of her birth in this country would be called into question. In the view of the U.S. Department of State, however, about 15,000 fraudulent birth certificates have been filed by midwives in South Texas, creating the dilemma Salgado now faces despite being born a U.S. citizen.

"Normally, a birth certificate is sufficient to prove citizenship," said Cy Ferenchak, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs. "But because of a history of fraudulently filed reports on the Southwest border, we don't have much faith in the (midwife-granted) document."

The INS' suspicions about midwife-delivered births are fed by fraudulent documents tied to those sort of births. From 1960 to 2008, more than 75 South Texas midwives were convicted of signing birth certificates for children they did not deliver. Determining which midwife-granted birth certificates are false is a near-impossible task. Convicted midwives were never asked to reveal which children they delivered, and which paid for fraudulent documentation.

A list compiled by INS revealed that of the nearly 250 midwives who practiced in South Texas between 1961 and 1996, 60 were convicted of fraudulent crimes. Since 1999, an additional 19 current and former South Texas midwives were also convicted.

Midwife-delivered applicants from South Texas must now provide "anything as simple as a newspaper announcement of their birth or a record of their mother's pre-natal care," said Ferenchak of the consular affairs office.

But many people like Salgado, born to families who couldn't afford an obstetrician or a brief hospital stay, were unable to pay for such luxuries. In one of the poorest regions in the country, midwives have long presented an alternative to expensive hospital visits, especially before 1984, when Medicaid began covering childbirth.

"For many people here, midwifery was a necessary alternative," said Paula Gomez, executive director of the Brownsville Community Health Center. "Financially, there just weren't any other options."

The Texas Midwifery Board reports that in 1925 more than 50 percent of the babies born in Texas were delivered by midwives. By 2004, the number had dropped to 6.6 percent. Still, 21,321 babies were born to midwives and other non-physicians in the state.

"It's just a part of the culture here in Brownsville," said Mayor Pat M. Ahumada, who was himself delivered by a midwife.

To prove her birth certificate's legitimacy, Salgado has dug up elementary school report cards and baptismal records upon the government's request. Others in her situation have searched for the midwives who delivered them, and acquired signed affidavits stating the facts of their births.

But so far, only a tiny fraction of residents delivered by midwives have received passports.

"My father's family lives in Mexico," Salgado said. "Without a passport, how am I supposed to get there after next June?"

Salgado's case illustrates a clear change in the Passport Office's treatment of midwife-delivered applicants. When she last applied for her passport in 1994, Salgado received it in two weeks.

"Since 2001, we've made our procedures a lot more secure," Ferenchak said of the era after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., jarred the nation and changed views on national security.

Salgado has seen firsthand how much more difficult it has gotten to secure a passport. A few weeks ago, and seven months after she began the application process, another packet from the National Passport Office arrived at Salgado's home.

Her heart raced as she tore it open, and then sank when she pulled out the contents. It was a request for more information, not the passport she'd expected.

If Salgado can't come up with the information, her case will be closed. She will then likely receive the same form letter sent to other unsuccessful applicants. The letter not only denies a passport request, but also rejects the applicant's claim to citizenship.

South Texas Congressman Solomon Ortiz has received plenty of inquiries from desperate constituents about the passport issue.

"Many of our citizens affected by this issue are tax-paying, law-abiding citizens, and several have worked in the federal government or have served in the military," Ortiz said.

Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, has met with State Department officials in seeking a solution for his constituents, but the federal agency has yet to indicate a change in policy.

"The State Department should consider all available documentation to verify they were born in the U.S.," he said. "With the 2009 WHTI deadline approaching fast, we need to make sure those citizens have the ability to obtain passports needed to cross between the U.S. and Mexico."

In her manila folder labeled "Passport Info," Salgado keeps copies of letters she has sent to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

"I feel that the (U.S. passport office) has profiled me," she wrote in one letter to the senator. "Mexican surname, born with a midwife, live in a border town."

Several weeks ago, she received a phone call from Hutchison's office. One of the senator's aides spelled out the harsh reality of Salgado's predicament.

"Unfortunately, you're paying the price for someone else's untruth," she recalls the aide saying. "We can't wave a magic wand and get you a passport."

A 2000 U.S. Department of Health report on midwifery in the United States claimed that "problems associated with midwife registration are concentrated along the United States-Mexico border."

The report continues to detail an unnamed border city in which "midwife registration has become such a problem...that the city now requires a police officer to be called to the scene shortly after any midwife delivery to verify that the birth actually occurred in the United States."

In the Valley, no such policy has been implemented. But regulation has become much more stringent since 1977, when Brownsville became the first city in Texas to pass an ordinance requiring midwives to register with the city and meet established qualifications. The state adopted Brownsville's ordinance in 1983, when it became known as the Texas Midwifery Act.

"Before that," said Tony Zavaletta, a former city commissioner and a current vice president at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, "there was no regulation at all."

Prior to 1977, anyone able to pay $10 to the county office could begin practicing midwifery, and signing birth certificates, with no questions asked. Most current passport applicants were born before oversight existed, shedding further doubt on the validity of their birth documents.

Salgado is left to wonder if she's being held responsible for the government's decades-old mistake. And if her birth certificate is no longer deemed legitimate, she asks, what will become of her citizenship?

"If the adjudicator suspects fraud," Ferenchak said, "there are processes by which the case can be referred to an investigator."

Such an investigation could theoretically lead to deportation proceedings.

In other words, says Lisa Brodyaga, an immigration attorney in Harlingen, passport applications have become an additional - albeit surreptitious - check on citizenship.

The government's crackdown is not entirely without reason. Some passport applicants could be using fraudulent birth certificates without knowing it.

Jodi Goodwin, a Harlingen-based immigration attorney, says she has seen men and women break down in her office after their parents come clean, explaining to their children that they were actually born outside of the United States. In some cases, false birth documents were secured weeks or months after the individual's birth.

The government's rationale doesn't satisfy Salgado. Some of her peers might have applied for a passport with false credentials, she admits, but she's not one of them. She has purchased a cemetery plot in Brownsville, which she points to as further proof of her attachment to the country and the city.

"I was born here," she said, "and I'm planning to die here."

On the last day of the school year, Salgado put away copies of "Lord of the Flies" and "The Crucible" in her Porter High School classroom.

It has been hard for her to put aside her battle with the passport office before stepping into the classroom. Leafing through the pile of letters she has written to politicians and federal agencies, Salgado makes no attempt to conceal her desperation.

Her voice is strained. Her hand rests on the manila envelope, the chronicle of her effort to secure a single document.

"As hard as it is, I want to keep this problem out of the classroom," she said. "These kids are too young to lose faith in their government."

To view the online slideshow - Delivered by Midwives, Fighting for Passports.  Click here!

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