After she gave birth to her second child in 2014, Katherine Johana Portillo brought seven different types of documents to the Vital Statistics office in McAllen, Texas, hoping it would be enough to obtain a birth certificate for her Texas-born daughter.
Fleeing a violent husband, Portillo had crossed the Mexican border when she was still pregnant with her baby—a coyote had smuggled her and her three-year-old son all the way from Guatemala. But when Portillo and the group she was with entered into northern Mexico, the coyote ordered them to toss their Guatemalan IDs into the woods: The drug cartels charge exorbitantly higher fees to cross the Rio Grande River for Central Americans, who have traveled considerably farther than Mexicans and are therefore all the more desperate for help.
With that, Portillo had tossed the ID she would have needed in order to obtain the birth certificate that would not only prove she is her daughter's mom, but also that the girl is a U.S. citizen—leaving the child excluded from a host of taken-for-granted privileges enjoyed by other American kids.
That's why, along with 28 other undocumented immigrants, Portillo sued Texas last year for denying her the birth certificate, despite various efforts to prove her identity through other means. On Friday, the state finally settled the lawsuit through mediation, agreeing to accept additional types of foreign IDs that immigrants can obtain from the consulate offices of their respective countries.
According to the lawsuit, Texas's refusal to give parents of American-born children this little piece of paper created a host of headaches. Some kids couldn't enroll in school. Some couldn't go to daycare. Others couldn't even be baptized. And some could not be covered under Medicaid. Attorneys argued that, as a result, the state was creating a “category of second-class citizens.”
A foreign government-issued photo ID and foreign voter ID card are both acceptable proof of identity at the Vital Statistics office. But according to the lawsuit, many immigrants either lost those IDs while making the dangerous trek to the United States., were forced to toss them like Portillo—or they arrived here as minors and therefore never even had them to begin with. Many of the plaintiffs had previously used a foreign ID commonly called a matricula, issued by the Mexican consulate, or a foreign passport without a visa as proof of identification when obtaining birth certificates for their older children. But in recent years, the state appeared to begin rejecting those forms regularly.
While the case was in litigation last year, Texas Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen told us of the consular matricula ID: “We don't consider it a valid ID. Our concern is that it's not secure, that it's not valid, and that it wouldn't stand on its own to get an ID.” He said of foreign passports that are not stamped with a U.S. visa, “We don't know what every passport in the world looks like, so we have no way to authenticate that.”
Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Efrén Olivares, one of the lead attorneys on the case, said the tides turned when the Mexican government announced in the spring it would start allowing Mexican citizens living in the U.S. to receive voter registration cards by mail, which was not previously possible. That would easily solve the problem for Mexican immigrants who may have lost their voter card while crossing the border, and then were unable to renew it upon arriving in the U.S.
After the announcement, Olivares said that's when he approached the state about mediation. Not only did the state ultimately agree to accept these mailed voter ID cards, but as for other Central American countries, Texas will also accept “consular certification,” Olivares said. This temporary document is usually given to immigrants whose wallets are stolen or lost, he said, but now will be expanded specifically for obtaining birth certificates. Immigrants will also be able use basic official documents like utility bills and pay stubs as supporting documents.
Olivares said that, if the state had not agreed to the settlement, the lawsuit would have been an uphill battle because attorneys would've had to prove that Texas was intentionally discriminating against immigrants, instead of just protecting against identity fraud. If they lost, Olivares isn't certain the kids without this basic document ever would have fully escaped “second-class” status.
One seven-year-old without the certificate could not even return to the United States after visiting his father in Mexico, even after his mother, an undocumented immigrant, explained the situation to Texas Vital Statistics officials, Olivares said. Attorneys got involved after a drive-by shooting, possibly drug-related, happened in the boy's Mexican neighborhood, Olivares said—and that's when the state finally obliged and made an exception for the boy.
“They didn't want this to be part of the lawsuit if something happened to this boy,” Olivares said, “just because he couldn't come back for lack of a birth certificate.”
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.