Two weeks ago, many current Valley residents, and many who once lived here but are now scattered nationwide, began to worry after the Washington Post reported a rise, under the Trump Administration, of passport application denials for people born in the Rio Grande Valley.
The State Department immediately responded that the report was untrue and that rejections of passport applications were at a six-year low. But one clinic in the Rio Grande Valley, McAllen Primary Care Clinic (MPCC), says that passport rejections for people who were born there have exponentially increased.
MPCC’s former owner, Dr. Jorge Treviño, who is now deceased, was cited in the Washington Post article as a person at least partially responsible for the passport denials. His family is not happy about the mention.
Dr. Treviño was 90 when he passed away in 2014. He was a general practitioner physician (a “GP”) for 59 years, and his clinic is still in business. Several years ago, local and federal authorities investigated several Valley midwives and, apparently, doctors, who delivered babies in the area from the 1950s to 1990s. The investigation revealed that some created false Texas birth certificates which documented that babies had been born in the US, when in fact they were born in Mexico. Some midwives were criminally charged. And amid the investigation, according to the Washington Post, someone swore out an affidavit that Dr. Treviño’s office had once filled out a false birth certificate.
Based apparently on that one allegation, the State Department has for years considered all birth certificates signed by Dr. Treviño to be suspect. When people with such certificates apply for passports, the State Department has been rejecting them and asking for additional proof of citizenship, such as baptismal records, mother’s prenatal treatment documents, and utility bills from the time the child was born. Also requested are affidavits attesting that Dr. Treviño in fact signed the birth certificate.
Michelle Soles has worked at MPCC since 2015. She handles workers compensation and Family Leave Act claims; and, as she puts it, “all things paperwork.” This includes documentation for patients birthed by Dr. Treviño.
During Soles’ years with MPCC, the clinic has usually gotten one or two calls a month from former Treviño patients who had their passport applications rejected. Since the Trump Administration entered the White House, the calls have jumped to one or two per week.
MPCC provided Neta with the number of passport denial cases received over the last four years. In 2015, they handled 23 such cases; 34 in 2016; and 81 in 2017. So far this year, the clinic has received 62 cases—on track to approach, if not tie, last year’s figures.
Soles said it is not just “ordinary people,” whose passport applications are rejected because of suspicion about their birth certificates. “It’s across the board,” she said. She has received calls from homemakers to government workers to people in the military and attorneys.
“It just covers the whole spectrum of our population. It doesn’t matter who you are,” said Soles.
However, one common denominator binds these rejections.
“Not once have I seen any white people’s birth certificates,” said Soles, who herself is white. “All the names are Hispanic names” — which is not surprising, given that most people born to midwives in the Rio Grande Valley have had Hispanic last names.
According to Dee Treviño, Dr. Treviño’s widow, birth certificates used to be signed on stacks of paper with three to four carbon copies. The original, signed by the birth attendant, is the top paper and goes to Austin. Another goes to the county, and another to the parents.
At times, the parents’ copy may not contain the doctor’s signature if it was not signed firmly enough. In such cases, the passport applicants are directed by Soles to solicit the original birth certificate from the State of Texas. Then, Mrs. Treviño looks at it and verifies her deceased husband’s signature. Soles witnesses the verification and notarizes a letter stating she did so. She sends the notarized letter to the State Department and tells her worried patients to wait and hope for the best.
Since the Washington Post article, the clinic has been inundated with phone calls from worried people birthed by Dr. Treviño who have heard on the news about the alleged crackdown, according to Soles.
“It’s really scaring people,” Soles explained. “We’re getting calls, and they are wanting to check in and ask about their passports and their birth certificates.”
Soles believes they wouldn’t be calling if not for the article. She thinks “it’s just nonsense to scare people so badly like this,” commenting on the State Department’s targeting Valley residents.
State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert accused the Washington Post of attempting to “stoke fear among American citizens.” American citizens like those encountered by Soles have evidently become stoked with fear. However, the Post was simply reporting on a reality that Valley residents have known about for a very long time. That fact raises an interesting question.
Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, says that for years, residents of the Rio Grande Valley have experienced passport denials by the State Department, especially people who were birthed by midwives who later were accused or convicted of birth-certificate fraud.
“To be sure,” said the Valley native and Yale law school graduate, “some cases may require additional documentation, but the targeting of Latinx residents of this part of South Texas is wholly unjustified.”
Although passport denials have been occurring since at least the 1990s, Olivares said, “it is very worrisome that the administration is now making it a focus again, and we should all remain vigilant to ensure that no one is deprived of their citizenship unjustifiably.”
Questioning the authenticity of Valley residents’ citizenship is long-standing and commonplace. So why did this story cause such a stir now?
Dr. Treviño’s daughter, Mariana Treviño Wright, has a theory. She feels that because she is the executive director for the National Butterfly Center, she and her family are being targeted by the Trump Administration.
“I am basically ‘Plaintiff #1’ concerning the border wall,” said the McAllen native. “And I have become a very vocal, very visible anti-wall activist, speaking out against this preposterous project.”
She has publicly contradicted the narrative that the Department of Homeland Security and the Trump administration are spreading about how the borderlands are “chaotic,” “lawless” and “dangerous,” as often claimed by border patrol agents and leaders.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Treviño Wright. “I think it is highly suspect that the Washington Post at this time would choose to publish a story about something that’s not really news to the people of the Rio Grande Valley.”
Treviño particularly took issue with the fact that the Post named only one physician. “They did not name any midwife. They named one doctor out of dozens in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties, who delivered babies from the 1950s to the 1990s.”
“Why name one physician, deceased, who cannot defend himself, and why link his obituary, which does name me, as well as my siblings and all of our children, except possibly to impugn all of us…[and make out] my father to be a criminal—a Mexican immigrant who came here and then handed out illegitimate birth certificates to illegal aliens or non-citizens,” Treviño Wright speculated.
When the Butterfly Center’s lawsuit moves forward through court, Treviño Wright maintained, “then I’ll be painted as the daughter of this person with an agenda, who was ‘a Mexican and a criminal,’ as Trump tries to paint all Hispanics.”
The reporter for the Washington Post article was Kevin Sieff. Via email, he told Neta that he mentioned the accusation against Dr. Treviño because he was told about the affidavit by Brownsville attorney Jaime Diez. (Neta attempted to contact Diez but was not successful.) Sieff said he knew the names of other doctors who were investigated by the State Department, and according to court filings in a 2008 lawsuit challenging passport denials, Castelano v. Clinton (a lawsuit in which Diez represented plaintiffs), the State Department made a list of midwives suspected of birth-certificate fraud. (The list is sealed by the court.) Dr. Treviño was the only person Sieff named in his article as being associated with accusations of birth-certificate fraud.
Treviño Wright’s suspicions about government retaliation may well be baseless. The Washington Post has been at the forefront of media opposition to the current administration. The newspaper was adamantly anti-Trump during the Republican nomination process as well. Sieff very much opposes Trump administration policies on his Twitter page. And attorney Diez, one of the Valley’s staunchest and most vocal supporters of immigrants’ civil rights, is hardly someone who would wish to help the Trump administration deny those rights.
Even so, Dr. Treviño’s widow, speaking with the Rio Grande Guardian, called the Post report an invasion of their family’s privacy.
Midterms right around the corner
The Washington Post article may have offended a local family, but nationally speaking, that offense came during what culture watchers call “a moment” — even as the newspaper ramped up the moment. The Post article jabbed at raw, national pain and outrage over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” separation of immigrant parents and their children, and it deepened those feelings among Democrats in Congress. Representative Joaquin Castro told the Washington Post that passport denial on the border “represented an unacceptable targeting of people based on their ethnic heritage.” Senator Jeff Merkley agreed.
So did Congressman Vicente Gonzalez. His Texas district, the 15th, is gerrymandered into a bizarre shape that snakes for hundreds of miles, from a tiny squib in the Rio Grande Valley all the way north to the suburbs of San Antonio. The voters of the 15th are about half Democrats and half Republicans. It thus was no surprise that Gonzalez announced about the passport denials issue.“I plan to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to utilize our powers of congressional oversight and end these unwarranted actions that have gone on for far too long.”
Then Gonzalez went to work.
On Sept. 5, he introduced H.R. 6707. He was joined by Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), and Jimmy Gomez (CA-34), both Democrats. The Act, entitled “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative Improvement Act of 2018,” states that The Secretary of State, shall “adjudicate United States passport applications in an individualized, evidence-based manner.”
Announcing the legislation earned Congressman Gonzalez and his colleagues attention and positive media. Headlines included, “Bill Introduced to Combat Passport Discrimination in RGV,” “Congressman Fighting Passport Discrimination,” “Lawmakers introduce bill amid passport denial reports.”
It wasn’t the first time Gonzalez defended the citizenship of Latinos. In July 2017, he introduced the “Repatriate Our Patriots” Act, to prohibit removal from the US of military veterans who are legally considered deportable—mainly because they have committed crimes—and to expedite their naturalization. Gonzalez has reportedly asked every member of Congress to support the bill. It was authored in conjunction with Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who sits on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committee and who is running a tight race for the US Senate against incumbent Ted Cruz.
But Gonzalez also praises border militarization
Amid these pro-immigrant stances, Gonzalez’ office also announced that the Department of Homeland Security has awarded $750,000 to Duval and Jim Hogg Counties—which Gonzalez also represents—for fiscal year 2018. These awards come via the Operation Stonegarden Program (OPSG). The program pays local law enforcement agencies for equipment and overtime so that sheriff deputies, police officers, and constables can assist the border patrol.
The funding also supports a request to the Governor of Texas to “activate, deploy, or redeploy specialized National Guard Units/Packages and/or elements of State law enforcement to increase or augment specialized/technical law enforcement elements operational activities.” The verbiage is byzantine, but one thing is clear: it cannot be good for undocumented immigrants. Or for people like those born at Dr. Treviño’s clinic, whose citizenship is suspect.
As the good people of this country nervously and angrily await the next federal insult to people of color, whatever that insult might be, and as we rage against the wounding of our common morality and solidarity, it’s important to call out the pain of people from the borderlands like the Treviño family, whose good name has been bruised by insensitive media coverage that nevertheless thought it was doing a good deed. At the same time, it’s important to note that, in discourse and policy making about immigration, preference for higher socioeconomic classes of Latinx folk, such as military veterans, comes at the expense of working-class, undocumented people of color. But if deportation is bad for one group, then surely it’s bad for all.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Dr. Treviño was 89 when he passed away. The correct age is 90.