WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) – If Nebeth Carbajal's claim is true, he is living a life just the opposite of so many Latino immigrants today. He is a legal, U.S.-born citizen who has been forced to live as if he were undocumented.
Carbajal, 33, whose Mexican parents came to the U.S. illegally, claims he was born in a house in Belle Glade on Dec. 6, 1979, delivered by his aunt and another woman. No birth certificate was issued, and 14 months later, his mother took him and his baby brother back to Mexico because she had to care for a sick relative.
In 1995, when Nebeth was 15, all three crossed back into the U.S. and have lived in Texas ever since. The brother, Junior, 32, was born in Everglades Memorial Hospital in Pahokee and has always had a U.S. birth certificate.
But Nebeth is now trying to prove his citizenship, in part to acquire a U.S. passport so he can travel legally to Mexico to visit his father, who he said he has not seen in 14 years.
In June 2012, his mother and aunt testified in Palm Beach County Circuit Court about the day of his birth and they presented documents to support their case. On Sept. 28, Judge Lisa Small ordered the county to file a "delayed birth certificate'' for Carbajal with the Florida Department of Vital Statistics.
He applied for expedited service from the U.S. Passport Agency, but instead, a State Department investigator showed up to question Carbajal at his job in Texas, where he does painting and construction. Almost a year later, he still doesn't have a passport.
"I understand that they have to be careful about this kind of thing,'' Carbajal said. "We have shown the government all kinds of documents, but it has been impossible to get them to respond.''
His attorney, Elizabeth Ricci of Tallahassee, said U.S. citizens have to show only a valid birth certificate to acquire a passport, and Carbajal now has one.
"He is being made to prove his citizenship more than other citizens would need to, and that isn't right,'' she said.
The State Department would not comment on Carbajal's case, but spokeswoman Beth Finan provided a list of documentation, “secondary evidence,'' that must be submitted in cases where a birth certificate issued within a year of birth is not available.
One such piece of evidence is a baptismal certificate. Carbajal has one, showing he was baptized Jan. 31, 1981, at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Belle Glade. The document notes the child was born in Belle Glade and that the Rev. Vincent Villar performed the sacrament. A church secretary confirmed that Villar had served at the church.
Another document sought by the State Department was a “doctor's record of postnatal care.'' Ricci gave the Circuit Court judge and the State Department a registration card issued to his mother, Elizabeth Carbajal, in 1980 by the Florida Department of Health's Women, Infant and Children program, which provides low-income mothers with food and nutritional counseling.
Dates have been written in, referring to appointments Elizabeth kept and when she received nutritional supplements.
His mother also saved a note from a Belle Glade family doctor, Rolando Piedra, saying he treated Nebeth for an ear infection on July 15, 1980.
The State Department also wanted his early school records. That schooling happened in Mexico, but Nebeth provided those records, which indicate he was registered at his elementary school as a student "of U.S. nationality.''
The State Department website also says a delayed birth certificate must be issued on evidence of this kind and on affidavits provided by the parents. Carbajal fulfilled those requirements as well. He also included an affidavit from his aunt, Hortencia Carbajal, who assisted at his birth.
Ricci said her client has fulfilled the requirements the State Department has posted publicly. But in an Aug. 8 letter to Carbajal, its National Passport Center included an expanded list of possible “secondary evidence,'' which included proof of prenatal care.
The document provided by Elizabeth Carbajal listing visits to the WIC clinic starts with one on "12/2,'' but with no year included.
"I interpret the 12/2 notation to be Dec. 2, 1979, the week before she gave birth,'' Ricci said. But Elizabeth Carbajal says she never received prenatal care and doesn't know to what the date represents.
Still, she insists she gave birth in Belle Glade, having arrived there from Mexico when she was five or six months pregnant.
"I didn't know any such prenatal care was available,'' she said. "It was same thing with giving birth. Back in Mexico, women gave birth in their homes. That's what I did. My sister-in-law was there and another woman, who wasn't exactly a midwife, but she had experience assisting with births.''
Dr. Ahmed Barhoush, an obstetrician who has practiced in Belle Glade since 1974, said Carbajal's story was feasible.
"Sometimes it happened that way,'' he said. "It would happen much more back then in Belle Glade than it does today.''
Elizabeth Carbajal and her husband, Asencio, a landscaper, also did not register the child and get a birth certificate.
"We spoke no English and wouldn't have known where to go,'' she said. "We were ignorant.''
Ricci said asking for proof of prenatal care, even though that requirement is not listed publicly, is the State Department "changing the rules in midstream.''
In her submission to the court, Ricci included other "secondary evidence,'' including the birth certificate of Nebeth's younger brother, Junior, born in December 1980.
"By then I knew what to do,'' Elizabeth Carbajal said. "I went to the hospital in Pahokee and we also got a birth certificate.''
Not long after Nebeth was baptized, Elizabeth Carbajal took her sons back to Mexico because her mother-in-law was ill and no one else could care for her, she said. Her husband stayed in the U.S. to work.
On re-entering Mexico, she was told to file visa applications for her sons after informing Mexican border authorities that they were U.S.-born, which meant they were foreigners entering Mexico. She has copies of both visas, dated Feb. 21, 1981, and giving Belle Glade as their place of birth.
Nebeth Carbajal said he sneaked back into the U.S. in 1995 because he could not prove he was U.S.-born. He said that in 1996 the family sought an attorney's help in straightening out the matter.
"But the attorney wanted $5,000,'' he said. "Where were we going to get that kind of money?''
In 2011, the family contacted Ricci, who helped them convince Judge Small they were telling the truth and then sent off the passport application, accompanied by the “delayed birth certificate.''
After months without a response, Ricci asked the State Department to refund the fee for expedited service.
"Rather than issue a reimbursement or reach out to me, the (State Department) sent an investigator to Carbajal's job to interrogate him,'' Ricci told The Palm Beach Post in an email.
The State Department claimed the "delayed birth certificate'' was "insufficient evidence to prove his birth in United States,'' Ricci said.
Ricci says the Carbajal case is an example of how U.S.-born citizens, most of them Latinos, are denied rights by immigration agents and other U.S. officials.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse Immigration Project at Syracuse University, 834 U.S. citizens were picked up between 2008 and 2012 and confined by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents _ sometimes for months, and threatened with deportation, accused of being illegally in the country. According to media reports, in a small number of cases Americans were mistakenly deported, despite their protestations of U.S. citizenship.
"There is a presumption that these people have committed fraud by claiming to be U.S. citizens,'' Ricci said. "That's what the Carbajal case is. They are presuming that is he committing fraud, but I've already proved once he was born here. I shouldn't have to prove it again.''