On Friday, a federal judge ruled that the state can continue to deny birth certificates to an untold number of Texas-born children because of their parents' immigration status.
In May more than a dozen undocumented women sued the Texas Department of State Health Services, saying workers at vital statistics offices in the Rio Grande Valley had begun refusing them birth certificates because of insufficient records proving their identity. Some of the women had used the very same records years prior to get birth certificates for their other Texas-born children.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the women by the nonprofits Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Texas Civil Rights Project, alleges that denying these children birth certificates has created a “category of second-class citizens.”
Under the state's current policy, immigrants can use national ID cards from their home countries or some electoral ID cards to obtain birth certificates for their children born on American soil. The problem with that, according to the lawsuit, is that many of the women who have been denied birth certificates for their children fled violence in Mexico or Central America when they were minors and never obtained electoral IDs. Others, according to the lawsuit, were forcibly stripped of their national ID cards when they made the perilous journey to Texas. Some actually have foreign passports, but Texas won't accept them without the stamp of a current U.S. visa.
For instance, there's Katharine Johana Portillo, one of the women named in the lawsuit, who says she fled violence in Guatemala with her three-year-old son. While she once had a national ID that Texas officials would have accepted, coyotes smuggling her through northern Mexico demanded she throw her ID card into a field because local cartels charged higher crossing fees for Central Americans. “Pregnant and fearing for her safety if she obeyed,” she tossed her ID, according to the lawsuit. She hasn't been able to get a birth certificate for the child she delivered in a McAllen hospital last year.
Earlier this year a DSHS spokesman told us that the state rejects so-called matriculas, a form of ID commonly used by undocumented immigrants that is issued by a foreign consulate, and passports without a current U.S. visa because they can't validate those records. This summer Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tried to have the case thrown out, citing sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment (constitutional scholars questioned the legal tactic).
In response to federal District Court Judge Ronald Pitman's Friday ruling denying an emergency order sought by families whose children have been denied birth certificates, Paxton said in a statement:
"Today’s ruling is an important first step in ensuring the integrity of birth certificates and personal identity information. Before issuing any official documents, it’s important for the state to have a way to accurately verify people are who they say they are through reliable identification mechanisms. We will continue defending DSHS’s policy on safeguarding Texans’ most sensitive information and vital documents."
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While the state claims it has long rejected matriculas and visa-less passports, attorneys representing the women allege this is a more recent change that has created a serious, growing problem within the immigrant community. According to the lawsuit, vital statistics offices have turned away women who used the exact same documents to obtain birth certificates for their older Texas-born children.
According to one of the mothers who delivered her daughter at a McAllen hospital this past March, one vital statistics office worker told her that stricter rules had been applied “to prevent undocumented persons from obtaining status through their U.S. citizen children,” the lawsuit alleges. When one woman recently attempted to get a birth certificate for her son, according to the lawsuit, a state worker “threatened to report her to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
The lawsuit claims that without official proof of a parent-child relationship, these children have been unable to enroll in school, have had difficulty obtaining medical care and other benefits they should be eligible to receive as U.S. citizens. Some have even been denied baptisms, according to the lawsuit. In his ruling Friday, Judge Pitman acknowledged that denying American citizens birth certificates “results in deprivations of the rights and benefits which inure to them as citizens, as well as deprivations of their right to free exercise of religion by way of baptism, and their right to travel.”
Still, Pitman denied an emergency order that would have forced Texas to approve "at least two forms of identification [that are] reasonably and actually accessible to undocumented immigrant parents of Texas-born children." The state, Pitman wrote, has every right to vigorously defend the integrity of the documents that it issues. “In sum,” the judge wrote, “the arguments of the Plaintiffs, while heartfelt, compelling and persuasive, are not enough” without more evidence.