Attorneys for the state of Texas argued in federal court in Austin on Friday that a lawsuit joined by dozens of undocumented Texans has nothing to do with their U.S.-born children being denied birth certificates by the state vital statistics unit. Instead, the attorneys claimed, the suit is a ruse to compel the state to accept Mexican consulate-issued identification.
“This is more about the legitimacy of the matricula, I’m just throwing that out there,” argued Thomas Albright, an assistant attorney general for the state, referring to the contested form of photo identification that Department of State Health Services (DSHS) says it will not accept, and has never accepted, as proof of identity for undocumented parents seeking birth certificates for their American-born kids.
Friday was the first time attorneys have appeared in court over the lawsuit, which was originally filed in May by four undocumented women from the Rio Grande Valley who allege that the state has wrongly denied them access to their children’s documents. They allege that in previous years, the state accepted the matricula consular for their now-older children as part of a selection of documents parents could use to prove their relationship. The matricula is a photo ID that the Mexican consulate issues to Mexican nationals living in the United States.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman warned attorneys for the state of Texas to abandon previous written arguments they’d made against the “importance” of having a birth certificate at all — “You shouldn’t be spending any more ink or time on that one,” he said — and asked counsel on both sides to convince him that the current “scheme” devised by the state concerning families’ abilities to obtain birth certificates either is or is not constitutionally appropriate.
Lawyers for the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), which now represents nearly 30 undocumented parents and their American citizen children who’ve joined the case, told a judge that the state changed its matricula policy amid anti-immigrant political rhetoric in the early 2010s and currently offers no “open doors” as a means by which undocumented parents can obtain birth certificates for their American children.
The hearing on Friday concerned a motion for preliminary injunction, with TCRP counsel asking the judge to block the state from denying the birth certificates while the case proceeds through the court system. Otherwise, TCRP counsel warned, U.S. citizens could face immediate and irreparable harm in the form of being deported with their parents and unable to return to their homes in Texas, being unable to enroll in school, or unable to obtain medical treatment through public programs. Some children, they argue, could not even be baptized without their birth certificates.
“The state must open one door to the undocumented parent community so there is some reasonable procedure they can follow to access their children’s birth certificates,” argued TRLA’s Jennifer Harbury. “Texas is the only state out of 50 that has locked all available doors.”
American citizens are therefore wrongly being denied fundamental rights because of their parents’ immigration status, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued. They asserted that none of the primary forms of identification the state currently accepts for birth certificates — including foreign passports with valid U.S. visas — are obtainable by undocumented Texans. And secondary forms of identification, they argued, should include the matricula or at least some other piece of identification accessible to undocumented parents, like expired driver’s licenses or voter ID cards.
Harbury outright denied that the lawsuit was a ruse to legitimize the matricula, saying that TRLA’s concern, on behalf of their clients, “is get the birth certificates. We don’t care about the matricula.”
Representatives for DSHS have said that their policy concerning the matricula has never changed, and that the state rejects the consulate-issued identification because it is not secure and could be used to fraudulently obtain birth certificates.
But the judge wondered aloud in court, multiple times, whether the state’s refusal to accept the matricula was a solution in search of a problem.
“What makes this burden necessary?” Pitman asked, that the state would seek to place such an obstacle between a U.S. citizen and access to her own birth certificate — access to, fundamentally, her very citizenship. “Tell me, is this a problem, is it such a problem that you have to enact this type of barrier?”
Albright responded that he did not have any quantitative documentation of instances where the matricula had ever been used to fraudulently obtain a birth certificate, but that the threat of such an occurrence justified the statutory requirements for obtaining such documentation. He acknowledged the political nature of the case, which had generated “a lot of passion,” and asked Pitman to “disengage a bit of compassion and look at it from a legal standpoint.”
Pitman concluded Friday’s two-and-a-half-hour hearing without a ruling and said that he would issue his decision on the preliminary injunction following further consideration.