Editor’s Note: Michelle Threadgould is a journalist covering politics, social justice, Latinx issues and arts and culture. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, KQED, GOOD, Remezcla and Racked. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Citizenship no longer necessarily protects you from having the validity of your birth certificate questioned, nor does it guarantee you a US passport. That is if you’re Mexican, live in Texas, and have a Hispanic surname, according to what immigration attorneys and individuals affected have told The Washington Post. And lack of a valid birth certificate or a passport increases your risk of being deported.
According to the Post, these developments stem from a government allegation that from the 1950s to the 1990s, midwives and doctors working along the border issued American birth certificates to babies born in Mexico, which some birth attendants have admitted in court.
Though addressing this problem was under way during the Bush and Obama administrations, it seems that the policy of pursuing it had fallen off back in 2009 – and is now brought back into play under the current administration, where legal and illegal immigration is politicized and discouraged. The State Department has denied any change in policy; attorneys and individuals identified by the Post suggest a “dramatic” change in how passports are issued and immigration laws are enforced.
Meanwhile, many of the midwives who have only admitted to falsifying a single birth certificate have also delivered thousands of babies legally, some delivering as many as 15,000 babies during their career. However, thousands of Latinos are now at risk of having their birth certificates flagged as fraudulent and are in danger of having their passports revoked.
Legal experts have stated that it is nearly impossible to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate documents, as these birth certificates were “officially issued by the state of Texas decades ago.” But what of the white children with Anglo-sounding names who were delivered by those same midwives? Why are their birth certificates not under the same reported scrutiny? This is yet another way that Latinos are singled out and treated like second-class citizens in this country.
Reading Wednesday’s article, I felt a familiar nausea, the kind of nausea that, for many people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community, has escalated under President Donald Trump. Are my fellow citizens suspicious of me and my family members? Are they or we next on a list somewhere – after the Muslims, refugees, and “illegal aliens?” I had an all-too-familiar feeling of wondering who will be left in Trump’s America when all is said and done.
What do I have to be afraid of? “Michelle Threadgould” is a white-sounding name. It passes. The name is not my mine by blood; it’s the product of the marriage between my father’s mother and my step-grandfather, a man whom I met for the first time when I was 16, and who I haven’t seen in over 10 years. It is the name on my birth certificate and my passport. It is the name that defines me, decides what line I stand in when I travel, and whether or not I get scrutinized.
My mother’s mother’s last name was Villegas. Her name is not on my passport, but I am her blood and she is mine.
Revoking or preventing the issuance of passports to specific ethnic groups is often the beginning of ethnic cleansing. Without a passport, where can you go when your country has made it clear that you are unwanted?
It is with my passport that I travel twice a year to Mexico City, the place where my mother’s family is from. I do not go on vacation. I go seeking refuge. Refuge from a country whose leaders now weaponize identities, and have turned Latinos into the enemy of the people. In Mexico, I’m a mestiza, a mix of cultures, and that doesn’t make me any less human.
On my last trip, I wanted to visit the art exhibit at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, one of Mexico’s most famous art institutions. The Palacio was crowded with people because it was Semana Santa, Mexico’s Holy Week, and I couldn’t move or see where I was going. All I felt was the heat of the bodies, a panic attack rising. Sweating and dizzy, I left and walked and walked until I found myself in front of a different museum, Museo Memoria y Tolerancia: the Museum of Memory and Tolerance.
The panic was gone and in its place were relief and silence. Inside the museum were floors of replicas and actual historic documents, photos, and artifacts from past genocides. There were pictures of hole-ridden, tiny wooden freights where hundreds of bodies were crammed next to each other, listlessly waiting on their rides to Auschwitz. There were video projections of the mass graves of Rwanda. There were walls with images of all the presidents and world leaders who remained silent and did not intervene in Bosnia.
It’s a museum that forces you to reckon with your own culpability. With the sins of your country. Where you recognize and empathize with the lives lost over perceived difference.
Over a year after my first visit, that museum still haunts me. The events and the horrors described in Museo Memoria y Tolerancia are not from so long ago – they’re shadows of our modern-day lives.
And so I do not want to believe in the false illusion that I or anyone I love is safe because of a white-sounding name. That name does not fit me: it serves as cover for cowards on the day it becomes unlivable for each of us in this country.
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Villegas is a name I love. It’s a name I stand by, passport or not.
Today is not a day to hide behind safe names or the privilege of unquestioned, American passports. It’s a day to fight for the people who have to fight; the people who don’t know and fear what the future might hold. Do you stand for revoking your fellow citizens’ rights, or do you stand for human decency?