The ACLU of Colorado is suing the U.S. State Department on behalf of Jaime Venegas, a Colorado resident who claims he's being denied a U.S. passport even though he was born in the United States and has a valid birth certificate blessed by the State of Texas to prove it.
At first blush, the complaint, which names Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seems like an attack on the Trump administration for discriminatory policies aimed at individuals with a connection to Mexico, where Venegas spent most of his formative years. And indeed, the Washington Post has reported that Hispanics living near the Texas-Mexico border with birth records showing they'd been born in the U.S. have increasingly been denied passports, with some winding up in immigration detention centers, targeted for deportation. The State Department responded by denying that it had changed its policies while asserting that so-called citizenship fraud had been on the rise in the area.
However, Venegas's dilemma began long before Trump took office and has roots that stretch into at least two previous presidential administrations. Arash Jahanian, the ACLU of Colorado staff attorney handling the case, provides the details.
"Mr. Venegas was born outside of El Paso, Texas, on July 20, 1984," Jahanian says. "He lived in Mexico until the age of sixteen. He went to high school in El Paso and has lived in Colorado since 2005. He's a small-business owner and has two U.S. citizen children and a U.S. citizen wife. He's even gotten derivative U.S. citizenship for his mother, who also lives in Colorado — and he never had any problem with citizenship until 2014, when he applied for a passport with the State Department."
At that time, Jahanian continues, Venegas "submitted his valid Texas birth certificate. But the State Department denied him. They said, 'The birth certificate was insufficient proof of your citizenship,' but they didn't say why. They just said, 'We need more proof.'"
Venegas endeavored to comply. According to Jahanian, "He got the Texas government to certify that his birth certificate was valid, and he also provided other documents, including immunization records that show that at the time of his birth, he was living in and around El Paso. But in March 2017, the State Department denied him again."
The red flag for Venegas appears to have been the method of his delivery, via midwife rather than at a hospital. During the administration of President George W. Bush, officials came to believe that some midwives and doctors working near the Mexico border were part of a scam that provided U.S. birth certificates to some individuals who weren't actually born in this country. The issue came to a head in 2008, when the ACLU sued on behalf of Amalia Ramirez Castelano and several others who maintained they were U.S. citizens who'd been improperly denied passports.
By 2009, when the State Department settled the case, Bush had given way to President Barack Obama, and the Secretary of State cited in the agreement was Hillary Clinton. The pact established new procedures for passport applications intended to eliminate the abuses cited by the ACLU. But the State Department never admitted to any wrongdoing, and the settlement, also shared here, states that "there has been significant fraud by midwives and other birth attendants certifying births as occurring in the United States when they have not occurred in the United States."
This attitude appears to have still been in place at the State Department when Venegas applied for a passport in 2014 and 2016. But attorney Jahanian contends that none of the feds' concerns should apply to his client. In his words, "Mr. Venegas has a valid Texas birth certificate. Texas says it's valid. And he's produced other proof of his birth in Texas. So we don't know why the State Department is refusing to issue the U.S. passport to which he is entitled."
The lawsuit falls well short of being an anti-Trump screed. The president's name appears nowhere in the text, and Jahanian's suit doesn't turn on the argument that his administration is using any excuse it can to harass Latinos.
"There is certainly information out there that indicates added scrutiny is being placed on individuals born in the border region by the Trump administration," he acknowledges. "But the reason we brought this case is to help shed light on this issue. Our main goal is a declaration by the court removing any question that Mr. Venegas is a U.S. citizen who's entitled to a passport."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.