AUSTIN, Texas ― On Aug. 29, The Washington Post published a bombshell report alleging that the Trump administration had orchestrated a campaign to systematically deny passports to Latinos born along the border.
“The Trump administration is accusing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Latinos along the border of using fraudulent birth certificates since they were babies, and it is undertaking a widespread crackdown,” the paper wrote.
But the Post withheld key data, mischaracterized information and lobbed an allegation of fraud at a deceased doctor without speaking to his family members, who complained publicly, HuffPost has found. The piece has been substantially altered three times, including Thursday after multiple queries from HuffPost.
The paper cited a number of specific policies to support its allegation of a crackdown: supposedly heightened scrutiny of birth certificates signed by midwives suspected of peddling fraudulent documents, supposedly unprecedented passport denials to people born far from the border, and a supposedly new focus on babies delivered by one Texas doctor.
All three practices predate Trump.
The Post’s allegation that the administration is increasingly scrutinizing birth certificates signed by midwives suspected of peddling fraudulent documents ― the basis for much of its initial story ― is particularly problematic. This allegation was supported by the observations of several expert lawyers who had witnessed skyrocketing caseloads of passport denials, mostly in South Texas. The story lacked statistics, which the State Department initially failed to provide.
But when the State Department provided HuffPost the raw number of passport denials in suspect midwife cases along the border, those numbers contradicted the Post’s report. The number of denials steadily dropped, from a peak of 1,465 in 2015 to 971 last year. As of last month, the State Department appeared to be on pace to end 2018 with still fewer denials than last year. The total rejections in these cases since Trump took office number fewer than 1,600 ― not thousands.
The Post acknowledges receiving the same data two days after publishing the story. But the paper didn’t disclose the new numbers. Instead, the Post updated the article to note that a smaller percentage of passport applications were denied under Trump ― withholding the numbers showing that the number of people whose applications came under scrutiny at all also declined.
The Post stands by the report, a publicist told HuffPost in an email, arguing that the State Department’s numbers don’t capture the full universe of passport denials. Several lawyers interviewed by HuffPost, including some whose comments formed the basis of the Post’s report, share the paper’s skepticism of the State Department’s accounting and say their caseloads of passport denial claims are rising.
They note that the State Department’s data only includes people whose birth certificates were signed by suspect birth attendants ― mainly midwives, and the vast majority of them in Texas. But the department also casts additional scrutiny on applications from people with delayed birth certificates or whose births were recorded in both the United States and Mexico, which sometimes happens when people are born in the U.S. but move to Mexico as kids, because local authorities often require a Mexican birth certificate to attend school. It’s possible that cases like these could be driving an increase in passport denials that the State Department’s figures don’t track. Fear of rejection keeps some Americans delivered by midwives at the border from applying for passports at all.
But as it stands, the Post’s report remains misleading. It relies on anecdotal evidence to make an explosive claim that’s contradicted by official data ― and doesn’t make that fact clear. It implies that years-old practices are new. And the paper consistently refused to correct the record unless it was called out by other reporters.
Within hours of the Post article’s publication, for example, Slate legal affairs reporter Mark Joseph Stern pointed out on Twitter that the piece erroneously asserted that widespread passport denials in suspect midwife cases began during the Obama administration, which in fact had settled a major lawsuit over the practice that reformed the system. The Post fixed the mistake that afternoon, but only appended a correction notice after Stern published a piece skewering the paper for botching a key fact.
When confronted with criticism from the State Department, the Post inserted a new claim into the piece to bolster its case: The paper had identified passport denials to Americans born hundreds of miles away from the border.
But a federal court record search quickly turned up two such lawsuits dating from the Obama years. One involved a man born at home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the other a man born in Conroe, Texas, who received a delayed birth certificate deemed valid by the state government. However disturbing such actions might be, they didn’t begin under Trump.
Or consider the case of Dr. Jorge Treviño. As evidence of the Trump crackdown, the Post cited scrutiny of birth certificates signed not just by midwives but by Treviño, a prominent family physician who delivered more than 15,000 babies in the Rio Grande Valley over a career stretching back to the 1950s.
The paper reported that the federal government possessed an affidavit accusing the doctor’s office of falsifying at least one birth certificate for a foreign-born child. But that case began in 2015, according to Lisa Brodyaga, one of the lawyers who worked on it ― making it entirely unrelated to Trump. The government never produced the alleged affidavit, and neither the lawyers in the case nor the Post ever saw it. Ultimately, the man received his passport.
The State Department also accused Treviño of being unreliable in another Obama-era case, according to a letter Brodyaga read to HuffPost over the phone. But again, the government failed to back up the allegation with evidence and eventually issued the passport.
The scrutiny of Treviño’s birth certificates is neither new nor necessarily indicative of any wrongdoing. The State Department’s interest in some of the people Treviño delivered stems from a mundane record-keeping problem, his office said. In the early years of Treviño’s practice, his office used a typewriter to draw up birth certificates with several carbon copies. In order for his signature to reach to the bottom copy, which went to the parent, the doctor had to press hard while signing, leaving some certificates without a legible signature.
When people with those birth certificates applied for passports, the State Department often asked them for more documentation ― prompting the applicants to call Treviño’s office. The staff would direct the applicants to request the official certificate from the Texas Department of State Health Services Vital Statistics Unit in Austin, and Treviño’s widow, DeSaussure “Dee” Treviño, attested to the authenticity of her husband’s signature.
Treviño’s family members would have explained all this to the Post. But the paper didn’t give them a chance to comment.
“We don’t know and have never heard, before this article came out, of anyone from his office doing anything illegal like this or of anyone forging his signature or using his name to do something like this,” the doctor’s daughter, Marianna Treviño Wright, told HuffPost. “For this to surface three years after he’s dead … unless the State Department or the lawyers are going to produce the affidavit, it might as well be a fairy tale.”
Treviño’s widow and daughter tried publicly and privately to talk to the Post from the day the article published.
The family only received a call Thursday, nearly two weeks later, after HuffPost emailed the paper to ask why it had ignored them. The Post updated its story that day to mention the timing of the case and add a comment from Treviño Wright and a correction noting that the paper misidentified the doctor as a gynecologist.
The Post publicist said the paper included the allegations against Treviño because it was clear his work was being scrutinized and said the Post had also identified cases that began under Trump.
“The point was to help illustrate the complexity and potential scope of the issue,” the paper’s publicist wrote. “Having said that, we should have made clear the affidavit we referenced was part of a case that emerged in the Obama era.”
Despite their displeasure with the Post, the Treviño family thought the paper was onto something. Like the lawyers, the doctor’s old clinic has seen more people coming to the office asking for help contesting passport denials. Something has changed under Trump, the family suspects. They wish they had some way to prove it.