One of the many school photos educator Armando Torres provided to the State Department in his effort to prove to the agency that he is a citizen who born and raised in California.(Photo credit: Armando Torres)

Imagine being on vacation in Mexico only to realize that your U.S. passport is set to expire. You return to the states early and visit your local passport agency to renew it, but the State Department tells you that the birth certificate you previously submitted doesn’t “sufficiently support your date and place of birth in the United States.” 

The government wants additional documentation to prove you are a U.S. citizen. You present your early immunization records, childhood health records, school photos, yearbooks, school IDs, and degrees, but none of it proves sufficient. The government ramps up its demand for documentation, and the requests are increasingly burdensome. The State Department wants records of your mother’s medical care before you were even born and your sibling’s school transcripts. After months of tedious back and forth, the government ultimately denies your passport renewal, leaving you in perpetual limbo and potentially subject to immigration enforcement. 

Armando Torres, a former school principal, doesn’t have to imagine this nightmare because it’s happening to him—and he’s not the only one. Immigration attorneys who spoke to Prism said that for more than a decade, the State Department has been “obsessed” with targeting Mexican American U.S. citizens in border states for something attorney Prerna Lal calls “de facto denaturalization.” 

“People with delayed registration of birth certificates are having their passport applications denied,” Lal said. “This doesn’t mean that they are not American anymore, but in these cases it calls citizenship and all the rights that come attached with it into question. The government gaslights people and they start to wonder if they’re actually U.S. citizens. They start to question everything about their life. Can I vote? Can I drive? Can I have a job? Even though it’s not a legal denaturalization, it feels like it because it puts their rights as citizens into jeopardy.” 

Lal is the attorney representing Torres in his lawsuit against the government. In preparation for the case, Lal hunted down records dating back to the 1970s for the entire Torres family. This included immigration records showing the family immigrated to the United States in 1975, one year before Torres was born. These documents and other evidence—like the deed to the California home where Torres was born—convinced Lal that Torres was in fact born in the U.S. But was it enough to convince a judge?

The ‘crime’ of being Mexican American

The State Department began denying passports to Mexican Americans in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley under the Bush administration in the early 2000s. The commonality among those being denied was that they were all delivered by midwives. Midwife deliveries are a long-standing tradition in the region because of the cost of health care and other systemic issues. However, the government claimed that from the 1950s to the 1990s, midwives along the Texas-Mexico border provided U.S. birth certificates to babies who were actually born in Mexico, The Washington Post reported. In a statement to Prism, a State Department spokesperson said that the U.S.-Mexico border region is an area of the country where “there have been and continue to be significant incidences of citizenship fraud.”

Previously, there was no recourse for Mexican Americans who were denied passports or had their passports revoked, but in 2008 nine American citizens sued the federal government and challenged the State Department’s refusal to issue passports, claiming it was because of their ethnicity and that their births were attended by midwives. According to the lawsuit, the State Department forced Mexican Americans “to go to unreasonable lengths to prove their citizenship by providing an excessive number of documents that normally are not required” only to “summarily close their applications.” 

The result of the lawsuit was the 2009 Castelano agreement, named after plaintiff Amalia Ramirez Castelano. It is a misconception that this agreement ended the State Department’s ability to deny or revoke passports for Mexican Americans. According to Lisa Brodyaga, one of the original attorneys on the case, the lawsuit was about the State Department’s procedure of simply refusing to adjudicate these cases, thereby depriving U.S. citizens of the ability to go to court to challenge the refusal to issue or renew their passports.  

The denials and revocations continue today.

No one knows this better than Jaime Díez, who over the last 15 years has become the go-to attorney in Texas for these cases and is juggling more than 20 right now. “I’ve won 95% of these cases, but the State Department has never said, ‘You know what? Maybe we’re doing something wrong because we keep denying people passports and this guy keeps winning their cases,’” Díez said. “That’s never happened, and they continue to deny people rights because the ‘crime’ they committed is being Mexican.” 

A State Department spokesperson said that ethnicity is not a factor in determining an applicant’s entitlement to a U.S. passport and that “the burden of proving one’s identity and citizenship falls on the applicant for a U.S. passport.”

Fighting the federal government is daunting because there is no end to the resources State Department attorneys can deploy, Díez said. The government goes to great lengths to fight American citizens in an attempt to prove they are actually Mexican nationals. The burden of proof is placed squarely on Mexican Americans who come from families where certain documentation is particularly hard to come by. Many of the parents of people who have been targeted are undocumented—literally meaning they were without documentation. 

“The government wants old family photos and family trees because they don’t understand the culture; they don’t understand that for certain families these things don’t exist,” the attorney said.

Díez said it would be “interesting to know” how many cases the government agency has won in Texas and how much money it has spent targeting Mexican American citizens in the state. According to the Brownsville-based attorney, the public has the right to know this information because the government is using taxpayer dollars to needlessly target American citizens.

“I’ve done hundreds of these cases, people of all ages, and the basis of each case is this: Were you born here or not? If you were born here, you have the right to be here,” Díez said.  

‘A dystopian nightmare’

Many forget that California is a border state. It’s also home to the nation’s largest population of Mexican Americans. Lal, who is based in Berkeley, California, has spent more than a year trying to emphasize how widespread the practice is of denying or revoking the passports of Mexican Americans in the state. Admittedly, their client’s case is complicated because of bad legal advice Torres received from a previous attorney. 

When Torres’ passport renewal was denied in 2016, he informed the administration at the school where he was principal that the State Department was questioning his citizenship. According to court documents, a school district-recommended attorney told Torres he was not a U.S. citizen based on the passport denial. Because he had been the victim of a crime, the attorney advised Torres to apply for a U-Visa, a visa for immigrant victims of crimes and who are willing to assist law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. Given that Torres was and has always been a U.S. citizen, this actually constituted immigration fraud. He eventually withdrew his U-Visa application from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

Torres was the eighth of nine children and he was born in Riverside, California, to an undocumented farmworker mother who gave birth to him at home with the help of a midwife. His parents didn’t register his birth until nine years after he was born. By law, births in California must be registered within 10 days. Their delay in registering Torres’ birth was due to an unfamiliarity with the law and fear of interacting with authorities. 

Life was tough for Torres’ mother. Farmers refused to pay her for weeks and her landlord would sometimes take her entire paycheck, threatening to report her to immigration authorities. These conditions pushed the family to Richmond, California where Torres grew up. 

Torres became an educator in the same community he was raised. He taught for eight years at his alma mater Richmond High School and after returning to school to obtain his administrative credential he served as principal for six years before his life came to a standstill.  

Torres chose not to speak to Prism for this piece, but gave Lal permission to discuss his story and share court documents related to his case. It has been a traumatic experience that has fundamentally changed the course of his life and put his family through hell. 

Lal said the family has experienced “harassment” from the State Department. Government officials have called Torres’ siblings demanding additional personal records and hours of recorded depositions. Torres’ 80-year-old mother was interrogated by a government attorney for seven hours regarding the circumstances of Torres’ birth. His older sister, who witnessed his birth, testified while sick with stage 3 cancer. Torres’ disabled brother was also interrogated by an attorney representing the government, and when he couldn’t remember minor details, Lal said the government “latched” onto it as proof that Torres wasn’t an American citizen. Yet all of them testified under penalty of perjury that Torres was born in California. 

“It would be one thing if he had a Mexican birth record [or] a Mexican birth certificate, but he doesn’t and the government has found no evidence of any of these things,” Lal said. “He made one mistake when he filed the U-Visa. There is no evidence that he’s [a] Mexican [national] anywhere, in any record. It’s surprising to me the government is fighting this case so hard with zero evidence. The level of resources they have used to try to strip this one man of his rights is bizarre.” 

A Feb. 26 Zoom court hearing shed light on the lengths the government is willing to go in these cases. 

During the hearing on Torres’ case, Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California seemed perturbed with Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Kurlan. He pushed her to specifically outline the additional information the government wanted from Torres. Kurlan said the State Department wanted the 44-year-old to identify every social media platform he has used for the last 16 years. This was important because in the State Department’s quest to prove that Torres is a Mexican national, attorneys located an old Facebook account for the educator and saw that his friends wished him a happy birthday during two different months. The government’s case appears to rest on this minor detail.

“This was the turning point for me,” Lal said. “I am done trying to find and present documents from 40 years ago; because it became abundantly clear to me that the government didn’t want the truth. They just want to win by stripping a Latino man of his citizenship.”

Prism has reviewed the records Lal has provided to the government thus far. Sorting through the documentation is like scrolling through Torres family history. There’s his 1983 baptism record and his elementary school class photo full of Mexican American children smiling widely and wearing their Sunday best. There’s his mother’s green card showing her wavy thick hair and hoop earrings. Of course there is also Torres’ California driver’s license and U.S. passport, documentation the U.S. government provided based on the fact that Torres is a citizen. 

Lal is worried that Torres’ sadness is eating away at him. 

“It’s really scary to have to sue your government for the fundamental rights and privileges you are owed as an American citizen,” Lal said. “It’s not just about a passport. He’s going to have to look over his shoulder the rest of his life.” 

The government can decide to put Torres in deportation proceedings if a federal judge does not find him to be an American, and he can be stripped of his citizenship and deported to Mexico where he would also have no status. 

“It’s a dystopian nightmare,” Lal said. 

The State Department declined to answer specific questions about Torres’ case, saying the agency does “not comment on pending litigation.” 

Torres’ trial is set for May 25, 2021. In the meantime, Prism has filed a FOIA with the State Department for information regarding California passport denials as they relate to race, ethnicity, or the alleged national origin of individuals. Torres’ case is limited to determining whether he is indeed an American, but in the future Lal plans to file a class-action lawsuit against the government as more cases emerge from Mexican Americans born in California to migrant farmworkers. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the timeframe in which Torres’s parents registered his birth. The error has since been corrected.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.