The federal court in Seattle recently found that Washington resident Carlos Acosta was a U.S. citizen and ordered the State Department to renew his passport. Acosta was born in a relative’s home in Colorado, and then returned to Mexico shortly thereafter. Because the birth was registered both in Colorado and Mexico, the court considered family members’ testimony about the birthplace and found their testimony sufficiently persuasive to carry Acosta’s burden of proof. The State Department had terminated his passport when it discovered the Mexican birth certificate.
“It is fairly common for US births to also be registered in Mexico in order to obtain medical benefits and to attend school,” said Acosta’s attorney Robert Pauw. “This case shows that persuasive family testimony can be successfully used to establish US citizenship.”
A person’s place of birth often determines citizenship. In the United States, the Fourteenth Amendment states that “All persons born … in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States ….” Where there are no official records of a person’s birth or the birth records are inconsistent – as often happens when a person is born in a home in the United States but raised at least partly in Mexico – the federal district court has the authority to determine where the person was born and decide whether a person is actually a U.S. citizen. The district court makes the determination de novo based on the evidence presented at trial, and if a U.S. passport has been denied the court can order that a passport must be issued. See 8 U.S.C. §1503(a).
In Acosta v. United States, the applicant claimed that the Department of State improperly denied his application for a passport. The applicant had a U.S. birth certificate and a baptismal certificate showing that he was born in the United States. However, a Mexican birth certificate had also been issued stating that he had been born in Mexico. There were no hospital records because he had been born in a home. He grew up in Mexico, and thus all of his school records and medical records showed his residence in Mexico.
At trial, the applicant’s parents and his cousin testified that he had in fact been born in a home with a midwife in the United States. The parents explained that the Mexican birth certificate was obtained after they returned to Mexico so that he could get vaccinations and medical treatment.
The decision in the case turned mainly on the credibility of the witnesses. The judge found the witnesses credible. However, in making the decision the court relied on several important legal principles, including the following:
(1) In order to prove birth in the United States, a person does not have to present any particular types of documents; instead, the applicant can meet his or her burden of proof by presenting credible testimony of witnesses.
(2) Reputation evidence regarding birth (evidence from a person’s family and friends as to where he or she was born) is admissible and can be highly probative as to where the applicant was in fact born; the court explained: “Statements of family members about matters of family history are generally presumed to be truthful”.
(3) It is improper to reject the testimony of family members just because they are “interested” or “biased” and their testimony is “self-serving”.
Based on the credibility of the witnesses, the court found that the applicant was in fact born in the United States and ordered the Department of State to issue a U.S. passport to the applicant.