Brenda Vazquez, a 29-year-old school teacher, used to cross the border bridge between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, a few times each week; for work, for shopping, to visit family, and to see friends, she says. But now, the young woman, who claims she was born in the U.S., is stuck in Mexico after signing a document that says she is not in fact a U.S. citizen.
While crossing over the Matamoros-Brownsville bridge to return to Texas in February of this year, Vazquez handed a U.S. border agent her Texan birth certificate and state ID, as she normally did. But instead of allowing her to pass as usual, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer Eliseo Cabrera detained and questioned her for seven hours, according to Vazquez's lawyer Jaime Diez. Cabrera told the young woman that he knew she wasn't an American citizen because she was delivered by a midwife and that she was also not allowed access to a lawyer, Diez says. Vazquez says she signed an admission of non-citizenship due to exhaustion and fear.
"He said, 'You'd better cooperate with me, because if you don't, you're going to jail. I had to lie and say that I was not a citizen. ... I was quite scared. I was crying," Vazquez told CNN.
Requests for comment from Cabrera were directed to Brownsville CBP spokesperson Eddie Perez, who declined to comment on the case or on Cabrera's record, saying the agency could not weigh in on "pending legal action." Perez did note, however, that, "CBP is obligated to ensure that documentation presented to establish citizenship is proper and correct and was issued to the person presenting the documents."
The Vazquez case comes at a bad time for the CBP. Civil rights complaints filed against the federal agency, which describes itself as the "largest law enforcement organization in the nation," have increased substantially in recent years as the number of border crossers has simultaneously decreased. In 2004, lawyers and individuals who had contact with the Border Patrol filed 34 complaints. In 2010, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 65 complaints were made against the agency. Between January and June 2011, 81 new complaint investigations were opened against Border Patrol.
Vazquez's attorney insists that his client's case is not unique. "What is most frustrating to me is that this is not the first case we've brought against CBP for this kind of action. I've had 7 other cases I can recall. Brenda's case is just one more. And it's the same officer we've seen doing most of this stuff," Diez said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Sisters Yuliana Trinidad Castro and Laura Nancy Castro signed similar statements at the hands of Cabrera in 2009, according to Diez. Like in Vazquez's case, the sisters were told their birth certificates were fake, because they were delivered by midwives. The sisters also claimed they were held for questioning for 13 hours. After a handful of midwives were found guilty of selling false U.S. birth certificates to parents of Mexican-born children in the 1990s, even those children legitimately born in the U.S. and delivered by midwives have often had to fight to prove their U.S. citizenship when crossing the border. The Castro sisters sued the Brownsville CBP, and won.
"The officer continued harassing me, yelling at me, and telling me that I was Mexican and that he was going to deport me," Yuliana Trinidad Castro wrote in her court statement. "After a while, I realized I had no way out since he told me no matter what I did, to him I was Mexican."
Perez, the Brownsville CBP spokesperson, said he also could not comment on the case of the Castro sisters. According to the lawyer Diez, after filing a lawsuit, the Castro sisters were given back their passports.
In 2008, the ACLU sued the federal government on behalf of nine Latinos who were allegedly discriminated against for being delivered by midwives.
"For countless Latinos who were delivered by midwives in the Southwest ... trying to obtain a passport has become an exercise in futility," the ACLU wrote in a statement at the time. "Although midwifery has been a common practice for more than a century, particularly in rural and other traditionally underserved communities, the U.S. government has imposed unsurpassable hurdles on midwife-delivered Latinos to prove their citizenship and eligibility for U.S. passports -- even when their citizenship has already been established in the past."
In a 2009 settlement, the State Department pledged to implement new procedures for such individuals. But Diez says in his client's case, such procedures have been of little help. When Diez requested a copy of Vazquez's birth certificate from the state, for example, he was told that while Texas had her records, it was unable to release a copy of it because of Vazquez's signed confession. Instead, Diez attained Vazquez's twin brother's birth certificate to help prove his client's U.S. citizenship. Diez says his client's brother was also born in Texas, and has never had issues with crossing the border. It would be nearly impossible for one twin to be American, and one twin to be Mexican, he says.
"We live very close to the border. But not that close," Diez said to The Huffington Post.
Muzzafar Chisti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at the NYU School of Law, says that the number of U.S. citizens detained at the border has increased in recent years as enforcement policies have tightened. Although the seven hours the young woman was held in detention is not out of the ordinary for the CBP, Vazquez should have been afforded the right to an attorney, if she requested one, Chisti said.
"Of course she had right to counsel in that situation. If the guard really told her that she did not have the right to counsel, then, he was wrong," Chisti told The Huffington Post. Chisti says the case is more complex because Vazquez herself signed an admission of non-citizenship.
"The part that most complicates this case is that she signed this declaration. It's supposedly voluntary. But she signed it and that changes everything," Chisti said. "The question now becomes if this was or wasn't a coerced admission. But that will have to be determined by the facts."
SLIDESHOW: 10 MAJOR U.S. IMMIGRATION LAWS
The Naturalization Act of 1790 was our country's first set of laws dealing with citizenship. Applicants had to be "a free white person" of "good moral character." This excluded indentured servants and slaves. Good moral character was substantiated by establishing residence for at least one year in the state from where he was applying, and at least two years of residence in the country. The Naturalization Act of 1795 would extend that requirement to five years, and is still standard today.
A Reconstruction Amendment that was added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War, the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment establishes for the first time that children born on U.S. soil would be conferred U.S. citizenship regardless of their parent's citizenship status, race, or place of birth. Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 to Congress, and challenged this. The bill would require that at least one parent be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for a child to be granted citizenship. According to the bill's text, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and "clarify those classes of individuals born in the United States who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth." Prior to this, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) introduced a similar bill in 2009.
The Naturalization Act of 1870 explicitly extended naturalization laws to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." This meant that for the first time, African-American children would be conferred citizenship upon birth. Asian immigrants and other people of color are excluded per the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795.
Named after Republican Representative Horace F. Page, this is the first U.S. federal immigration law to explicitly prohibit the immigration of a particular group: persons of Asian descent. Primarily meant to limit Chinese immigrant labor and prostitution, the Page Act prohibited the immigration of: (1) contracted labor from "China, Japan, or any Oriental country" that was not "free and voluntary," (2) Chinese prostitution and (3) criminals and women who would engage in prostitution. Ultimately, the Page Act severely restricted the immigration of Asian women. Only 136 of the the nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in the months before the bill's enforcement were women. And, it would pave the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act. In this picture, Michael Lin, chair of the 1882 Project, a coalition of rights groups seeking a statement of regret over that year's Chinese Exclusion Act, speaks on May 26, 2011 in Washington, DC, at the US House of Representatives in front of a reproduction of a 19th-century sign that aimed at rousing up sentiment against Chinese Americans. Lawmakers introduced a bill that would offer an official statement of regret for the act, which banned further immigration of Chinese to the United States and ended citizenship rights for ethnic Chinese. (AFP PHOTO/SHAUN TANDON).
Signed by President Chester A. Arthur, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first federal immigration law to prohibit immigration on the basis of race. The bill barred all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from immigrating to the U.S. for ten years. It was made permanent by 1903, and was not lifted until the 1943 Magnuson Act. The 1898 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark finally extended naturalization laws to persons of Chinese descent by ruling that anyone born in the United States was indeed a U.S. citizen. This editorial cartoon from 1882 shows a Chinese man being excluded from entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty." The sign next to the iron door reads, "Notice--Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen." At the bottom, the caption reads, "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman--'We must draw the line somewhere, you know.'" (Image Source: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, vol. 54 (1882 April 1), p. 96. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
The Naturalization Act of 1906 further defined the naturalization process: the ability to speak English was made a requisite for immigrants to adjust their status.
U.S. President Coolidge signed this U.S. federal bill into law. It capped the number of immigrants who could be admitted entry to the U.S. and barred immigration of persons who were not eligible for naturalization. And, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 required, an immigrant had to be white in order to naturalize. The quotas varied by country. Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons, NYCMarines.
The McCarran-Walter Act kept up the controversial Immigration Act of 1924, but formally ended Asian exclusion.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it abolished the quota system that favored immigration from Europe and limited immigration from Asia and South America.
The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) is a piece of legislation that defined an array of issues to do with legal and illegal immigration -- from outlining how border patrol agents should administer visa processing, to the minutiae of how to handle deportation proceedings -- IIRIRA established enforcement and patrolling practices.