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Our white supremacist presidency has entered a new and horrible phase:

In a case last August, a 35-year-old Texas man with a U.S. passport was interrogated while crossing back into Texas from Mexico with his son at the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, connecting Reynosa, Mexico, to McAllen, Tex.

His passport was taken from him, and Customs and Border Protection agents told him to admit that he was born in Mexico, according to documents later filed in federal court. He refused and was sent to the Los Fresnos Detention Center and entered into deportation proceedings.

He was released three days later, but the government scheduled a deportation hearing for him in 2019. His passport, which had been issued in 2008, was revoked.

The Trump administration is targeting U.S. citizens who were born near the Mexican border, asserting that their birth certificates must have been forged and they’re not really citizens after all. They’re refusing to issue new passports, or even canceling valid ones, and threatening people with imprisonment and deportation. Obviously, this is a racial dragnet deployed almost exclusively against those with Hispanic-sounding last names.

This policy isn’t exactly new. It began under George W. Bush, but when Barack Obama took office, his administration swiftly settled an ACLU lawsuit over the practice. Now the Trump administration is bringing it back.

The roots of this attack reach back to a problem from decades earlier:

Between the 1960s and 1990s, dozens of midwives were convicted on fraud charges for claiming that babies who were born in Mexico were actually born in Texas. Although the actual number of babies for whom fraudulent U.S. birth certificates were issued was small in comparison to those who were legitimately born on American soil, Brodyaga said the cases have been used by the U.S. government to cast suspicion on anyone whose birth was attended to by a midwife — a common practice in a region where many families couldn’t afford or had no access to hospitals.

Brodyaga said in the course of prosecuting the midwives the government forced them to hand over their birth registries, and because the women often couldn’t recall which children were born in the U.S., everyone they attended to ended up on the list of suspect births. (source)

Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, immigration lawyers are reporting that the number of passport revocations and denials are surging. And to be clear, it’s not just midwife-assisted births that are in jeopardy. The Washington Post article also cites the case of a doctor, Dr. Jorge Treviño, who helped to deliver thousands of babies in the region and whose birth certificates are now being challenged, for no obvious reason other than his last name. (“In this administration, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether the births would be questioned if the doctor’s name was Smith.“)

No one is immune to this danger. It’s happening to people born in Arizona and even Kansas. It’s happening to police officers and a 51-year-old military veteran with 20 years of service. As this letter says, it’s “ethnic cleansing by bureaucracy”.

Although it’s Americans of Hispanic descent who are being targeted right now, there’s no reason why people of other ethnicities should believe that we’re safe. If this becomes an accepted tactic, there’s no reason why this administration or any other couldn’t use it in the future against any critic or political opponent or anyone who voted for the other party. They could make anyone a homeless, stateless alien on a whim.

Just imagine: Tomorrow morning, you get a knock on your door. Government agents show up on your doorstep, accuse you of lying about your citizenship, and confiscate your passport. They threaten to imprison you or to deport you to a strange country where you have no job, no family ties, where you may not even speak the language. When you present your birth certificate, they reject it and accuse you of fraud. Or, possibly even worse, imagine that you were traveling abroad – and when you try to return to your country and your home, you get stopped at the border, stranded in limbo with no place to live.

How could you prove yourself innocent? What other evidence could you offer to clear your name? Even if you submit elementary school records, or a baptismal certificate (if you happen to belong to a religion that has those), or proof that your parents lived in the U.S. at the time (and how many people have documentation of that?), none of that proves where you were born. Your birth certificate is supposed to be the evidence of that. If the government refuses the birth certificate and demands more evidence, that puts you in an unwinnable catch-22.

This isn’t a theoretical danger. It’s the Kafkaesque legal nightmare some people are living right now:

“For a while, we had attorneys asking the same question: ‘Do you remember when you were born?’?” Diez said. “I had to promise my clients that it wasn’t a trick question.”

The burden of proof is entirely backwards. If the government wants to cancel someone’s valid passport, the burden should be on them to prove that person wasn’t born in the U.S. If they believe a birth certificate is fraudulent, they should have to show it beyond a reasonable doubt in court. It’s outrageous that they have the power to arbitrarily cancel anyone’s passport, to arbitrarily reject any supporting evidence, and then demand that person prove that they were born here.

Also, there should be a reasonable time limit on bringing forth this sort of claim. It’s incredible to me that a person can live in the U.S. and travel and vote with no hint of a problem, can enjoy the privileges of citizenship all their life – and then, decades later, the government can suddenly change its mind and try to take all that away from them. This is why we have concepts like “burden of proof” and “statute of limitations”. This is why these safeguards exist – to protect people from the capricious use of state power.

And although the answer is obvious, you have to ask: why did the government suddenly make this an enforcement priority? If someone is a law-abiding citizen, if they’ve lived in the U.S. their whole life, held a job, raised a family, owned a home, paid taxes… what good does it do to spring this trap on them, to snatch away their citizenship because of something their parents or a midwife might have done decades earlier? How does that advance the interests of justice? How does it make anyone safer or the world more peaceful?

The sole justification is racism, naked and malignant: a desire to drive out people of color, to bar the door to immigrants, to turn the U.S. into a white supremacist ethnostate.

That’s the only policy goal this erratic and incompetent administration has consistently held to: whether it’s U.S. citizens imprisoned because ICE refuses to listen to them, or asylum seekers imprisoned and split up from their families, or a denaturalization task force aiming to strip citizenship from those who’ve committed even minor transgressions, or deporting refugees, in blatant violation of treaties, to countries where they face persecution, or denying green cards to legal immigrants if the government thinks they even might use any kind of public benefit program any time in the future.

This is the policy of a racist tyranny, playing out before us in real time. We’re already past the first step of the famous “First they came for…” warning, and there’s no telling who will be scapegoated next.

Image based on via Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...