More border doctors discovered whose patients’ birth certificates were challenged

It’s not just midwives in the Rio Grande Valley whom the feds have accused of creating fraudulent birth certificates.

Such accusations have caused the State Department to revoke or delay many US citizens’ passports while demanding that those citizens gather vast amounts of paperwork to validate their birth certificates. A few weeks ago, The Washington Post published an article about this long-standing and, lately, apparently worsening problem for people born on the border. The passport denials and delays are based on government suspicions that, years ago, birth attendants created fake Texas birth certificates for people whom the government thinks were actually born in Mexico.

The Post article talked mostly about convicted midwives. But it also mentioned a Valley physician— the late Dr. Jorge Trevino, who died in 2014. Dr. Treviño’s family includes his wife, Dee, and his daughter, Marianna Treviño Wright, the head of the National Butterfly Center in Mission. Both have been deeply offended by their family’s name being dragged through government and media mud. Treviño Wright is especially indignant that the basis of the accusation is an affidavit which the government has never shown to lawyers who are litigating passport denial cases in court.

It has seemed scandalous that the government— not to mention The Washington Post— would so casually air murky allegations that a prominent doctor had engaged in fraud. Compared to the dozens of midwives that have been accused and convicted, the appearance of a single doctor on the State Department’s rogues list seems unique.

But Neta has learned that Jorge Treviño is not the only Valley doctor whom the government has implied used to falsify birth certificates. It turns out that two other beloved local physicians, both now deceased, are also under suspicion. And there may be other prominent doctors whose reputations have been similarly blemished.

Here is the story of the two whom we have found.

Doctors Joe and Emery Suderman (D.O.) owned and ran their Suderman Clinic for more than 40 years. It was a veritable civic institution in Pharr, an affordable family and maternity clinic that opened in 1962 and did not close until 2003. Joe and Emery, both general practitioners, located the clinic at the corner of Cage and Sam Houston Boulevard in downtown Pharr. By 1987, when “Dr. Joe,” as he was lovingly called, retired, the clinic had delivered more than 10,000 babies. Many of the newborns’ families lived on the US side of the river. Others lived on the Mexico side.

The Sudermans were Mennonites, a faith that originated in Germany about 500 years ago and evolved during the 19th and 20th centuries into an international movement. The Sudermans’ ancestors migrated to Russia, where they were a religious minority in the Czarist empire. The Communists later persecuted them after the Bolshevik revolution. So they again migrated, to the US.

Today, the Mennonite church spans 80 countries, including Mexico, and many Mennonites are dedicated to helping people in the global south. That principle inspired the Suderman doctors to work on the border. Dr. Joe was a board member of the Evangelical Mission Ministries (EMM), as well as many other community organizations and professional associations.

“He has rendered health care to many who have no other access to the health care system,” Dr. Joe’s announcement read. Courtesy of Evangelical Mission Ministry archives

Mexican-Americans made up about 95 percent of the Suderman Clinic’s patients; many others were missionaries who had little money. The Sudermans served uninsured patients free of charge, according to news articles from the period.

Dee Treviño, the widow of and administrative manager for Dr. Treviño, remembers the Sudermans. She was close with Dr. Emery’s widow, Inez, who now resides in Oklahoma in retirement.

Treviño said that her husband and the Sudermans offered comparable prices for deliveries: about $400 total. According to Treviño, a registered nurse and current medical practice manager for Dr. Treviño’s family practice, that amount was less than the fee paid to hospital doctors, and the hospital bill itself was an additional expense, she recalled. Today, deliveries range from a few to several thousands of dollars.

Both of the Suderman doctors were osteopaths, a medical discipline with an emphasis on individual wellness and disease prevention. They delivered babies before new regulations made it difficult for non-obstetricians/gynecologists to deliver.

The Suderman clinic closed in 2003 because the doctors could not afford increasing professional liability insurance rates. The rates were racked up by malpractice lawsuits which became commonplace in the 1990s. (Treviño dissolved his maternity clinic in the late 1980s for the same reasons.) News coverage at the time of the closure reported that patients stopped by the clinic on its last day in operation, and they were crying. Dr. Emery’s last public statement, reciprocating the sentiment expressed by his patients, was “I take care of (patients) as though they’re my own family.”

Dr. Joe holding a newborn baby at the Suderman Clinic. Courtesy of Evangelical Mission Ministry archives

They were also anxious about where they would receive affordable healthcare. But Dr. Emery chose to retire, rather than compromise his lifelong principle of providing affordable care to his patients, as they would have had to raise their clinic’s prices to remain in business. Dr. Joe saw what was coming. Upon his retirement, he lamented about what had become of his profession: “It is changing from ‘doing good’ to ‘How much money can you make?’”

Courtesy of Evangelical Mission Ministry archives

I recently visited EMM in Pharr. There, I met Betty Kruger and Twila Bradford, long-time secretaries of the ministry and life-long Valley residents. They recounted anecdotes about generous yet modest community doctors.

They described Dr. Joe as frugal and always willing to help people. Looking at an old EMM board photo from the organization’s archives, the women noted that one could pick Dr. Joe out because he was the only member who wasn’t wearing a tie. Nor did he spend money on airplane trips.

“He took the bus to visit his family in Oklahoma,” said Kruger. “That’s just the kind of guy he was.”

Neta first learned of the Suderman situation from a local notary. He said that people had been coming to him for the last several years, asking to notarize documents that they needed to send to the State Department, which was questioning their birth certificates. They had been born at the Suderman Clinic.

Neta spoke with a couple who both were born at the Suderman Clinic. Claudia Martinez applied for a passport in 2009 and had to provide “additional proof of citizenship” requested by the State Department, including high school and vaccination records and a baptismal certificate. She promptly sent the papers in but did not receive her passport until two years later. Eduardo, her spouse, plans to apply this year. The Martinez’s cross their fingers, as the newlyweds hope to visit Europe next year.

The process can be stressful, time-consuming, and expensive, but almost all applicants who are asked for additional proof of citizenship do eventually get their passports. A long delay, eventually culminating in a passport, may be the reason the State Department can boast that passport denials have fallen to a six year low—even as border residents wait and wait for the document.

Two RGV immigration attorneys, Jaime Diez and Lisa Brodyaga, have probably kept the denial rate low. They have lost only one case involving a disputed birth certificate. Without their efforts, the State Department refusal rate for passports would probably be much higher than it is.

But that possibility remains speculation. Nor is it known definitively why Doctors Joe and Emery Suderman are suspected of birth certificate fraud. When Neta asked the State Department, a spokesperson said they do not comment on specific cases involving doctors. Both physicians are now deceased, and Neta has so far been unable to reach surviving family members. Most reside in the Midwest; none are in the Valley.

At EMM, I told Kruger and Bradford that the State Department was questioning patients delivered by the Sudermans. The women were shocked. They considered it preposterous that these two doctors, whom the community so loved and respected and who were so totally uninterested in money making, could have been involved with fraud.

Doctors Treviño, Joe Suderman, and Emery Suderman are not the only Valley physicians accused. Patients of Dr. Treviño’s maternity clinic associates have also had their birth certificates questioned. And a Starr County physician is also said to have been targeted by the State Department.

It is possible that, regardless of their level of education or prestige, no medical practitioner who once helped low-income Valley women to give birth is immune from government suspicion, however unfounded. And none of the babies, now adults, can rest easy about their passports. In the Valley over several years, a miasma of suspicion, humiliation, and efforts to create inconvenience has come to infect federal policy in an ever more paranoid, racist age. Its evolution is a story that Neta is investigating.

Related: Passport denials have exponentially increased for people delivered by a doctor in the Rio Grande Valley since Trump took office