Though children born in the U.S. are entitled by law to U.S. citizenship regardless of the immigration status of their parents, Texas authorities have begun placing barriers to undocumented immigrants seeking to obtain birth certificates for U.S.-born children.
McALLEN, Texas — Hiram Ramirez didn’t expect problems when she went to get a birth certificate for her newborn daughter, Dulce.
Ramirez, 28, a native of neighboring Reynosa, Mexico, crossed the border illegally and has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for years. Her two older daughters, 3 and 14, were U.S.-born, and she easily obtained birth certificates for them using her Mexican voter registration and consular identification card. She relied on the birth certificates to register her girls for school, Medicaid and other government services.
But when the stay-at-home mother arrived at the downtown vital-statistics office Thursday, she discovered the rules had changed. Without a U.S. driver’s license, visa or Mexican electoral card, she could not obtain a birth certificate for her child. The voter-registration card expired before her youngest was born. Her husband has a consular identification card.
Though children born in the United States are entitled by law to U.S. citizenship regardless of the immigration status of their parents, Texas authorities have begun placing significant barriers to undocumented immigrants seeking to obtain birth certificates for their U.S.-born children.
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Hundreds of immigrant parents along the southern Texas border have been denied birth certificates for U.S.-born children since 2013, immigrant advocates say, as state authorities have made it more difficult to use alternative identification documents from parents who have no access to U.S.-issued papers.
The denials stepped up significantly after the Obama administration in 2012 expanded its efforts to protect millions of immigrants from deportation, according to lawyers who have filed a lawsuit arguing that the Texas policy is unconstitutional. A second program, proposed by the administration in 2014, would extend deportation protection in some cases to parents of children born in the U.S.
“As a result of this situation, hundreds, and possibly thousands, of parents from Mexico and Central America have recently been denied birth certificates for their Texas-born children,” said the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Austin.
State officials say they have always been reluctant to use identity documents that are not backed up with reliable forms of identification.
“We monitor local registrars for compliance. If we encounter a local registrar that is accepting identification that doesn’t qualify, we’ll let them know,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Department of State Health Services, which supervises the roughly 400 local registrars statewide that issue birth certificates.
At issue is a state policy, which immigrant advocates say has been enforced with greater vigor since 2013, declaring that state registrars cannot accept the identification cards, popularly known as matriculas, issued to foreign nationals by their local consulates.
This was a crucial decision because many immigrants in the country illegally — many of whom did not bring official identification cards issued in their home countries or had them stolen along the way — do not have the level of identification that is now required in Texas.
“It says we need a U.S. license we don’t have; a (Mexican) passport we have, but with a visa we don’t have; voter-ID card I have, but it expired,” Ramirez said as she cradled her youngest child, dressed in a pink onesie, on her lap. “It’s not fair. She has a right to her birth certificate. What are we supposed to do?”
The 14th Amendment guarantees the right to citizenship for children born on U.S. soil, part of the fabric of a nation of immigrants. The lawsuit filed in May names 19 parents of 23 children who were denied birth certificates in the Rio Grande Valley, alleging the refusals are an unconstitutional, discriminatory political tactic and demanding that a judge force the state to comply with federal law.
Attorneys representing the parents — immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico — said the state has used identification requirements as a means of combating the Obama administration’s more liberal immigration policy at a time the state is facing a major influx of new immigrants.
Three-fourths of the more than 55,000 families that arrived in the U.S. from Central America last year crossed into the Rio Grande Valley.
“As immigration became more controversial, they just started clamping down,” said lead attorney Jennifer Harbury of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
In California, immigrant parents routinely use the matricula card to obtain birth certificates, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
If state officials stopped accepting it, he said: “It would be disastrous. The banks, organizations, even the (Department of Motor Vehicles) use those matriculas now. It’s become an integral part of doing business with immigrants, both documented and undocumented.”
In Arizona, lawmakers have failed in recent years to pass several proposals that would have denied or restricted birth certificates to children born to immigrants who entered the country illegally.
Texas officials admit they have refused some of the immigrant parents’ documents, but contend that they followed state law.
Van Deusen, the health-services department spokesman, said that officials provide birth certificates “without regard to the requestor’s immigration status,” but that they don’t accept consular identification cards because underlying documents “are not verified by the issuing party.”
In McAllen, City Secretary Annette Villarreal said she was simply enforcing a state directive. “Until a few years ago we would accept the matricula consular, but the state came down on us,” Villarreal said, and “re-emphasized that we should not use the matriculas” because “they’re not verifiable.”
Villarreal, who has served as city secretary for 11 years, said some families have alternatives. For example, there may be a relative with proper documentation who can apply. “They can always call their hometown to send them valid forms of identification,” she said.