The Slatest

No, Obama Did Not Inspire Trump’s Illegal Policy of Denying Passports to Hispanic Citizens

Children look on during a naturalization ceremony for kids between the ages of 6-12 at Crissy Field near the Golden Gate Bridge on August 17, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Children look on during a naturalization ceremony for kids between the ages of 6-12 at Crissy Field near the Golden Gate Bridge on August 17, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Washington Post published a blockbuster report by Kevin Sieff revealing that the Trump administration is denying passports to American citizens born in the United States near the Mexican border. The targets of this practice, almost all of whom are Hispanic, have been sent to immigration detention facilities and placed into deportation proceedings—a clear violation of their constitutional rights. Startlingly, when the story first published, it alleged that this practice “began during Barack Obama’s administration.” Is it really true that Obama, not Trump, devised this plan to denaturalize American citizens on the basis of their ethnicity?

No. The Obama administration did not launch a denaturalization scheme. To the contrary, it inherited one from the George W. Bush administration, which it swiftly abolished, while implementing safeguards to prevent illegal passport revocations in the future. Trump has not, by any means, picked up where Obama left off, as the article initially suggested. He has, instead, revived and expanded one of the Bush administration’s cruelest policies.

Bush’s Department of State appears to have begun refusing passports to Hispanic citizens in 2003, ostensibly in response to scattered cases of midwives providing fraudulent American birth certificates to children born in Mexico. A large number of children near the southern border are birthed at home with the aid of midwives, due largely to the cost of hospital delivery. The State Department had no evidence that the individuals it had targeted were actually born in Mexico. But because they were Hispanics born to midwives in Texas, the agency applied special scrutiny to their passport applications, compelling them to provide extensive documentation to prove their American births. One older man, for instance, was asked to send in a 1935 census report, which did not exist, as well as 75-year-old records of prenatal care that had long been lost.

In 2008, a group of citizens represented by the American Civil Liberties Union sued the State Department for denying them passports. They alleged that the government had violated their due process and equal protection rights by imposing a heightened burden of proof to their passport applications because they were Hispanics whose births in a border state were assisted by midwives. The administration began settlement talks with the ACLU, and several plaintiffs finally received their passports in the waning days of his administration.

Shortly after Barack Obama took office, and Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, the government sent out passports to the remaining plaintiffs. In June 2009, the Obama administration entered into a settlement agreement with the ACLU. Under the terms of the agreement, the State Department was required to train staff to ensure that certain applications were not subject to suspicion for illicit reasons. The settlement also created a panel that reviewed passport denials to ensure that they were lawful, and directed the agency to cite specific reasons for each denial. Even after the completion of that process, an applicant had the right to challenge the denial and demand reconsideration. Moreover, individuals who were wrongly denied passports during the Bush administration were permitted to reapply without cost.

Vanita Gupta, who currently serves as president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, litigated the case with the ACLU. She told me on Thursday that the settlement “created robust and rigorous screening” that brought the denial of passports “almost to a halt for this particular population.” The settlement automatically terminated in May 2012, but Gupta said its terms were built into the agency’s system, and it continued to abide by them.

Yet the Post article originally blamed the Obama administration for beginning the passport revocation scheme. Later, it was edited—without a correction or update—to state that “the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations” denied passports to Americans born to midwives near the border. It’s true that the Department of State did not officially halt this practice until several months into Obama’s first term. But it’s not accurate to assign blame equally to both presidents. The Bush administration started the scheme; it later began to wind it down; and the Obama administration formally ended it.

It’s a shame that this error mars an otherwise well-reported, deeply alarming piece by implying that Trump is only taking a page from the Obama playbook. Trump’s passport revocations aren’t new, but they are disturbing and sinister—another indication that his administration is not only anti-immigrant but committed to a white nationalist ideology. As Gupta told me, the president is seeking “to attack U.S. citizens on the basis of race.” And he will seize on whatever pretext he requires to throw racial minorities out of the country.