Why Passports are a Feminist Issue

The U.S. government has decided to stop issuing passports to Latin@s from the Southwest with only a birth certificate issued by a midwife as proof of citizenship.

The State Department argues that some midwives have falsified records of children born in Mexico and therefore all midwife issued birth certificates are suspect. Between 60-75 midwives since 1960 have been convicted of forging birth certificates for infants they did not deliver or who may have been born outside of the US. Unfortunately, many of the cases occurred almost 50 years ago and amount to a small percentage of the overall midwife delivered births in the Southwest region. Some 250 midwives operated in Southwest Texas this year alone.

The decision has multiple consequences for women. Midwives tend to be overwhelmingly female and their practices have already suffered serious cycles of discredit as a result of establishing distinctions between largely male doctors in hospitals and largely female midwives who may be without them. Some authors have even argued that medical establishment systematically targeted midwives in the hopes of ending their profession all together and funneling more patients-funds into the hospital system. The decision of the State Department to further devalue midwives credentials – ie their ability to certify births – on the basis of a few individual misdeeds, puts this female dominated profession at risk once again.

In the 1920s more than 50% of children born in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest areas in the nation and current target of this passport issue, were born to midwives while 15-20% continue to be born to midwives today. That percentage amounts to over 20,000 births in 2004 in Texas alone. The overwhelming majority of children born to midwives from 1920 to the present came from working class and subsistence level families, having been simply priced out of the hospital system.

The decision also unfairly targets marginalized women from multiple backgrounds. Prior to the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, poor and disabled women had no way to cover their pregnancies and births and often relied on midwives. Rural women may not have had access to a hospital or been able to reach one, and thus were also more likely to use midwives. Both African American women and Latinas have a long tradition of using midwives as part of a cultural past as well as a response to medical discrimination particularly with regards to reproductive health. And there are programs specifically to recruit and train African American and Latina midwives that subsequently puts their livelihoods at risk alongside the myriad of white, middle class, women who have been part of the resurgence in midwifery in the last 10 years.

Not only does the State Department’s decision potentially represent unequal treatment under the law, by specifically targeting the Southwest region they are making it nearly impossible for Latin@s with strong cross-border ties to function. In both New Mexico and Texas, for instance, the tradition of using midwives extends to whole communities and for multiple generations. Not only were children born under the care of midwives because of tradition but also traditional discrimination in the hospitals as well as in the work place. Mining areas in NM consistently used midwives to aid in the births of their workers so as not to be held accountable for their schooling, subsequent medical care, or equal pay and to control workers whom they could report as illegal because there was no paperwork proving otherwise. Thus the decision is penalizing cultural choices as well as exacerbating existing histories of classism and racism in the region. While Texas seems to be the main target of this decision, it is unlikely that the State Department will not extend (or has not extended) the policy to the rest of the Rio Grande.

“I feel that the (U.S. passport office) has profiled me: Mexican surname, born with a midwife, live
in a border town.” – M. Salgado, South Texas School Teacher denied a passport (read her story at the Herald here)

Without passports many of these transnational migrants will also be unable to go about their regular cross-border routines. Beyond the breaking up of families by preventing the cyclical visitations, it also prevents poorer Latin@s who get their medicines or treatment on the other side of the border from offsetting their medical costs or potentially from getting treatment at all. Those who operate thriving cross-border businesses or who import items for stores in the U.S. are also at risk. Finally, the strong tradition of cross-border feminist activism and feminist consciousness raising that is a direct result of fluid borders is also ultimately threatened by these new rules.

In September, veteran David Hernandez filed suit against the government for discrimination in the issuing of passports. He says that he was able to serve in the US army on the basis of a midwife issued birth certificate, he should also be able to cross the border on the basis of one. Hernandez and the 9 other complainants in the case argue that not only is the decision discriminatory but that the execution of it is placing an undue burden on the Latin@ community as various alternative documents are also being rejected. In Hernandez’s case he could not get a passport with his birth certificate AND his honorable discharge papers from the army after multiple years of service. Others have claimed that they were asked to produce documents that “never existed” or that they would “never have had access to” and that when these items are turned in or claimed to be unavailable their passport applications are simply filed as “without further action” and they are not told.

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court in McAllen, Texas by the ACLU.

As the election draws near, please review the immigration policy of your local, state, and national candidates and choose people who will neither target women nor immigrants of any gender with discriminatory policies.

Read More Here:


  • Zulma Aguiar “Turnstyles”
  • Toronto Star/Tara Walton
  • Mark Vallen “No Human Being is Illegal”

10 thoughts on “Why Passports are a Feminist Issue

  1. Hi ProfBW, I want my students to read this article and I see that you’ve added a handy "print" option for your entries (Thank you!)… can I make copies for them to hand out in class? I’ve read your copyright page and I’m still a little fuzzy on this. mil gracias, alex

  2. I posted the article from workers world on my blog. I found it truly upsetting but not at all surprising. The INS has even rounded up US citizens because they didn’t "look American". There is no doubt in my mind that this is simply another tactic to delegitimize latino people. I also clearly see the link with the medical establishment. I do believe that this is purposeful. It is an attempt by the establishment to once again take over pregnancy. The cost of having a child in the hospital without insurance is more than these families can afford. By eliminating the midwife option they are putting women and their babies at risk but it seems that the almighty dollar is worth more.

  3. ProfBW, I just saw a number in that article you linked. 15,000 (for S. TX). That’s the estimated number that’re fraudulent, according to the State Department.Have you heard anything about whether Congresspeople or others w/ power to force the State Department’s hand (for example, friends of the lawsuit currently against the State Department) are either:A) trying to prove that the State Department has blatantly exaggerated that number by an order of magnitude or twoorB) going on the State Department’s number of 15,000, but opposing it to another number (which I don’t see in the article)–the total number of birth certificates filed by midweives (for S. TX)–and repeating those two numbers in conjunction over and over and over to influence opinion? (And, perhaps, even including some other relevant numbers for direct comparison to those two numbers–such as the estimated number of non-US-citzen people over the same time period who have gained false U.S. passports by other means?)

  4. Katie – I’m sorry Katie, I am a little confused. Are you asking if 15000 births in the S. TX region are fraudulent and that the number is being used to create a false sense of deluge? The number I have seen repeated is the one in my post – ie the number of midwives who have been convicted and the number of midwives total in a single year from that same region. There are two issues: 1. the vilification of an entire profession, a traditionally female profession that has been targeted in the past with accusations of incompetence and trickery in order to replace them with male doctors and hospitals, on the basis of a small percentage of their practioners and 2. the unequal treatment of both immigrants and people born in this country of Latin@ descent. Any numbers have to be couched within the period they are addressing, for instance the # prosecuted covers a 48 year span. Given the number of years and the number of estimated midwives, that is a minor amount. No doubt, if we were to calculate the number of births over the same 48 year period and divide them by the number of births presumed to have taken place outside of the U.S. we would also be dealing with a minor percentile. The problem in the latter case is that the documents going back to the 1920s are scarce to begin with for reasons like the one I cite in the post.Numbers only measure the questions that you ask.Renee- I think it is race, class, and gender. While the number of female physicians is rising their numbers and the respect many of them garner is in no way comparable to the number of female midwives and the respect they receive from others in their profession. Then you add in the cost of a hospital birth and you see why people sought out midwives in the first place but also why the medical field is still targeting this profession. Then you add in the traditional and current racism involved in medical care, particularly around reproduction and repro technologies, and you have yet another layer. Remember they were sterilizing Puerto Ricans and Indigenous women well into the 80s under a Bush authored bill and they still sterilize differently-abled women and incarcerated women with what some have found to be questionable consent. And of course then there is the start point in all of this, as you put it: the legitimacy of Latin@s in this country regardless of point of origin. Alex – sure

  5. ProfBW:Sorry I wasn’t clear. What I was commenting on was a number cited in the article you hyperlinked to ,not a number cited in your post.15,000 is the number of non-citizen people in South Texas that the State Department is allegedly worried about potentially giving U.S. passports to.I was asking if you’d heard of any other numbers that we might use to make this number look pitifully small (and then repeat that all over as a talking point).

  6. thanks for the clarifying your question. I got that it wasn’t a number in my article, I just don’t did not know what you were asking. I think your best bet for a counter would be to check CPS data for the same South Texas area. How many people are Latin@ or naturalized citizens of Latin@ descent over the last 50 years. State Department data should show how many of those people applied for passports. Both numbers represent the people potentially impacted either indirectly – b/c they are Latin@ and stigmatized by this law – or directly – b/c they have applied for a passport in this targeted region and from this targeted population. Or, as I said above, you could check the birth records in the region for the number of children born to midwives in the last 50 years and use that as a comparative to the number of children suspected of having been given false documents. Any of these would do.What I can say is that according to my stats this conversation alone is making Washington think . . .

  7. hi Noemi! What I do not get is why it is not a hot topic everywhere. (Altho, given how little the main presidential candidates have spent talking about immigration I shouldn’t be surprised.)

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