For nearly 150 years, the United States, under the 14th Amendment, has recognized people born here as citizens, regardless of whether their parents were citizens.
But Texas has other plans. In the last year, the state has refused to issue birth certificates to children who were born in Texas to undocumented parents. In May, four women filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Texas Department of State Health Services alleging constitutional discrimination and interference in the federal government’s authority over immigration.
Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who is representing the women, said the deluge of birth certificate refusals began last winter. “I’ve never seen such a large number of women with this problem,” she says. “In the past someone might be turned away, but it was always resolved. This is something altogether new.”
According to the lawsuit, the women who requested birth certificates for their children in Cameron and Hidalgo counties were turned away because of insufficient proof of their identities. State law allows the use of a foreign ID if the mother lacks a Texas driver’s license or a U.S. passport.
But local officials, which issue birth certificates registered by the Texas Department of State Health Services Vital Statistics Unit, told the women they would no longer accept either the matricula consular, which is a photo ID issued by the Mexican Consulate to Mexican nationals living in the U.S., or a foreign passport without a current U.S. visa. Undocumented Central American women are also being turned away because they only have a passport without a U.S. visa. “They are locking out a huge chunk of the undocumented immigrant community,” says Harbury.
Harbury believes the rash of refusals is linked to the influx of Central American families who crossed the border last summer seeking asylum. “They are targeting the undocumented population, but immigration is a federal function and not the job of the Department of State Health Services,” says Harbury. Women are unable to enroll their children in school or daycare without a birth certificate, or to authorize their child to be treated in a medical emergency. “It causes all kinds of problems,” Harbury says. “How is a woman going to prove she’s the child’s parent without a birth certificate?”
Since filing the lawsuit in late May, Harbury says they’ve received dozens of calls from women who have been refused birth certificates for their children: “The phones have been ringing off the hook.” Recently, they filed an amended lawsuit with several more plaintiffs.
James Harrington, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, is also representing the undocumented families. The legal team is seeking a court order to reinstate the use of the matricula consular and foreign passports as valid proof of identity for undocumented mothers.
“Even in the darkest hours of Texas’ history of discrimination, officials never denied birth certificates to Hispanic children of immigrants,” said Harrington in a written statement. “Everyone born in the United States is entitled to the full rights of citizenship.”
Update: In a written statement Chris Van Deusen, press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services says: “DSHS accepts a variety of documents to verify a requestor’s identification … Texas does not accept the matricula consular as valid identification because the documents used to obtain the matricula are not verified by the issuing party. Several other states and some federal agencies also do not accept the matricula as a valid form of identification for the same reason.”
Correction: The story originally stated that vital statistics offices in Cameron and Hidalgo counties are run by employees of the Texas Department of State Health Services. The offices are run by city and county officials. The Observer regrets the error.