The Washington Post and Texas Tribune have reported the U.S. State Department has begun denying passport applications, or annulling existing passports, from American citizens, largely Mexican Americans in South Texas. In some cases, applicants or passport holders have undergone detention under the threat of deportation, while others have been denied re-entry to the United States from Mexico at border checkpoints.
The pretext for these denials goes back to the Obama administration, which began denying passports to people delivered by certain midwives in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, alleging these birth attendants had provided fraudulent birth certificates. While the denials apparently subsided following litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union, they appear to have begun again under the Trump administration as part of a renewed racist attack on Mexican Americans and immigrants. The scope of the denials seems to have expanded beyond the original midwife and now includes a prolific regional obstetrician.
Those denied passports have had their entire status as citizens thrown into question. The State Department has instituted bizarre and arduous requirements to re-establish citizenship, including being asked the exact time of birth or to provide documents related to their baptisms or mothers’ prenatal care. Even when multiple requirements are satisfied, approval is not guaranteed.
Harassment of people of Mexican, Central, and South American heritage by the United States government is certainly not new. Deportation of undocumented people has been a mainstay of the bourgeoisie as it oscillates between profiting from the exploitation of their labor and deporting these same workers to depress wages, divide the working class and appease the most reactionary forces. More rarely does it make the news that “documented” people can have their citizenship thrown into question. While this seems a recent phenomenon on its surface, organized attacks on Mexican American U.S. citizens by the state has roots that reach back nearly a century.
History of attacks on Mexican Americans’ citizenship
Forced deportation of American citizens of Mexican descent occurred between 1929 and 1936. Beginning the same year as the Great Depression, an estimated one million people were forced to leave the United States to Mexico, approximately sixty percent of which were American citizens. The borderlands at this time had a recent influx of Mexican immigrants after the tumult of the Mexican revolution. Racist elements seized on this community’s new prominence and used them as a scapegoat for the Depression.
Following this pressure, multiple levels of government began a system of informal, unconstitutional deportations, euphemistically deemed “repatriations”, targeting Mexican Americans. The reasons given then reflect the talking points used today: that they drained public services, that they would be better off in Mexico, that they were violent and prone to crime.
While the pretenses were varied, the result was a uniformly enforced mass atrocity. Individuals, families, and entire neighborhoods of people known to be Mexican were raided by law enforcement, thrown into holding without an opportunity to prove citizenship, and fast-tracked on buses and trains to Mexico. Many of those deported had been born in America and were sent to a country they had never known; in other cases, families were torn asunder and never reunited. These “repatriations” have never been federally acknowledged as illegal or apologized for, and unsurprisingly, no reparations have been offered.
It is no coincidence we saw an increase in forced deportations after the Great Depression, nor that we now are observing citizenship denial after the most recent economic downturn. These racist attacks are typical of a response seen throughout U.S. history, when attacks on marginalized peoples increase during times of economic crisis.
US-Mexico border a bloody product of US expansion
A fundamental hypocrisy behind these attacks is that many of the targeted residents belong to communities that have lived on both sides of the Rio Grande for centuries, only becoming arbitrarily split with the founding of the modern U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. established this border through a series of bloody wars of aggression, first with invading forces that established the Republic of Texas in 1836, later with the territory’s annexation in 1845, and finally taking territory reaching the Rio Grande by military force in the largely one-sided Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, negotiated to end the war, promised in writing to protect the existing property rights of Mexicans living in the ceded, newly U.S. territory.
However, the assurance was an empty promise. An influx of enterprising capitalists such as the founders of the King Ranch quickly began accumulating this “protected” property through a combination of legal loopholes, escalating property taxes, and, when the legal system was not quick enough, lynching of resident Mexicans. The long-established residents of the border were often forced to abandon their property and move south, from which if they return to where there family originated, they are now arbitrarily considered “illegal.” These continuing attacks on Mexican Americans and immigrants, whether through forced deportations or a byzantine system of citizenship, fit into the imperialist narrative of the United States maintaining its bloody grip on the border.
Scapegoating Mexicans, with or without citizenship, is an attempt to prevent working class unity by distracting white workers from the real cause of their problems, the capitalist class. The wealth we need for food, housing and healthcare for all is not going to immigrants or marginalized communities but to the ruling class, and we must break through their racist efforts as we struggle toward liberation.