Passport to bureaucracy

June 14, 1995|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

At 88, Lucille Brown knows she doesn't have much time left to see the world.

So she jumped at the chance to travel with her West Baltimore church to Europe next month. The only thing standing in her way is the State Department, which has refused to issue her a passport because she can't prove she is a U.S. citizen.

"I know at my age I will not be able to travel that long again," shesaid. "I would like to see Europe while I still have my health and my sight."

Miss Brown knows she was born Sept. 6, 1906, delivered by a midwife at home in Bowie. But her birth apparently wasn't registered with the state of Maryland.

Miss Brown is scheduled to leave July 4 for Europe to attend the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Utrecht, Netherlands. She also is scheduled to visit Germany, Italy and France during the two-week trip.

Without the passport, she will forfeit the $2,300 she has paid for the trip, money she received after her retirement last year as a housekeeper.

But most important, the devout church member, who is in charge of the youth ushers at the Berea Temple of Seventh-day Adventists in West Baltimore, would miss the General Conference, a gathering held every five years that attracts church members from around the world.

"It would be the first time I missed it since I joined the church" in 1950, Miss Brown said. She said she is bewildered by the bureaucratic mess.

"It's weird," she said. "I vote and everything. I have a voter's card. I get Social Security and everything. It's weird."

State Department officials said that because a passport is a document that establishes citizenship, anyone applying for one must prove he or she is a citizen.

"Obviously, when we issue a passport, we have to verify two things: U.S. citizenship and identity," said Suzanne Lawrence, press officer for the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Identity can be proven with any of several forms of identification. "But to prove you're a United States citizen, you need a birth certificate proving you were born here in the United States. You have to have some document that establishes your right to a passport as a citizenship document."

Passport officials do run into cases where birth certificates are unavailable. It usually happens with someone born in a rural area, or an older person who hasn't applied for a passport before, Ms. Lawrence said.

"Sometimes we have even had cases where the building where the records were kept burned down," she said.

In those cases, the passport office will suggest alternative ways to prove citizenship, such as school or census records.

Miss Brown ran into a roadblock when she tried to obtain her school records from Prince George's County, where she attended classes until the sixth grade. A school official wrote to her last week to inform her that no records before 1920 are available.

Now, Washington attorney Edward N. Leavy has stepped in to assist her. Miss Brown worked for Mr. Leavy's in-laws for more than 40 years, and he was incensed when he heard about her problem.

When Mr. Leavy asked the passport office to issue Miss Brown a temporary passport, he was informed that she had received one when she traveled to Israel in 1984. "They absolutely refused to give her a temporary passport a second time, so we're at an impasse," he said.

Mr. Leavy submitted a packet to the passport office earlier this week, containing affidavits from four people who said they have known Miss Brown for four decades. He also included letters from the Prince George's County school system and the state's Division of Vital Records stating they have no record of her to show the passport office why that documentation is not being submitted.

Mr. Leavy said he hopes that will be enough. If not, he will file a motion in U.S. District Court seeking an order to compel the U.S. State Department to issue her a passport.

"If we don't have a passport by June 20, we will be in federal court," Mr. Leavy said. "I know there's no federal judge in this world who won't give this woman a travel document."

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