Ever Duarte’s youngest daughter was born in McAllen, Texas, on December 11, 2014, the last of three children in the Duarte family. Duarte, who is from Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from the city of McAllen, has lived on the U.S. side of the border for over 10 years. He and his partner are both undocumented, but until the birth of their third child, they had sought - and received - Texas birth certificates for their children, who are also U.S. citizens.
“It has been seven months since she was born, in December, and they continue to deny us the birth certificate,” said Duarte in a phone interview from McAllen. His other two children were issued birth certificates when both parents presented their Mexican passports and what is called a Matricula Consular, an identity document issued by Mexican consulates. “We feel that we’re being discriminated against, we need her birth certificate, we want to baptize her and in the parish they require the birth certificate, and she’ll need it in the future, for her vaccines and to go to school,” said Duarte.
Duarte said they have gone four times to request their baby daughter’s birth certificate, and that the city and county officials issuing the documents told them the order not to accept matriculas came from Austin, the Texas state capital. Like others, the family was told the child could return when she is 18 years old to collect her birth certificate. It was media reports that first alerted Duarte to the fact that his family wasn’t the only one facing this situation.The Duartes are among a dozen families joining a lawsuit with over 40 plaintiffs, which was filed June 11 in a Federal District Court in West Texas.
“We had reports of people being denied birth certificates in 2013, but then it really started picking up in late 2014, and then early this year,” said Efrén Olivares, an attorney with the South Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing the parents. “I don’t know what caused that, but the timing coincides with the flood of Central American immigrants and refugees last summer, and then with the the President’s announcement of executive action, and specifically DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents], in November of last year.”
DAPA would prevent Homeland Security from deporting parents of Americans, though it’s implementation is being blocked by a separate Texas court order.Before the reports of undocumented families being denied birth certificates were sporadic and people were having problems but they were not being turned away for good, according to Olivares. But now city and county officials are turning parents away for good, affecting dozens if not hundreds of youth and children.
“The argument is very basic at heart because these children are U.S. citizens ... the 14th Amendment of the U.S. constitution says that anyone who is born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, so they are entitled to a birth certificate, and the state of Texas cannot deny them that.”
The issue started gathering steam as people came out and told their stories to community organizations in South Texas. Because of media attention, more and more families are coming forward with similar cases. This is testament of the strength of the incredible network of community organizations in the Rio Grande Valley.“The argument is very basic at heart because these children are U.S. citizens, they were all born in hospitals, the 14th Amendment of the U.S. constitution says that anyone who is born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, so they are entitled to a birth certificate, and the state of Texas cannot deny them that,” said Olivares. “That is the core legal argument.”
While the majority of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Mexican, one is Guatemalan and one is Honduran. Many of the plaintiffs left Mexico fleeing violence and partner abuse. One of the plaintiffs was apprehended and detained with her infant daughter shortly after her birth by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Her documents were seized and never returned. Some of the plaintiffs arrived when they were minors, meaning they never had a Mexican driver’s license or electoral card. One of the plaintiffs, who fled violence in Guatemala, was told by the coyote who was moving her group across the border that they should throw their IDs away, because if drug cartel members caught them with identification they would charge them more to cross.According to the lawsuit, the denial of birth certificates affects the ability of families to baptize their children, to send them to school, to travel and prove their relationship to their children, to access social housing and daycare, as well as to access Medicaid, Head Start and other child benefits.
“The objectives of the lawsuit are twofold, first of all to get a birth certificate for these individual children, but more broadly, also to get a clear guidance and a clear statement from the state agency as to what other people in similar situations need to do in order to get a birth certificate,” said Olivares in a phone interview from Alamo, Texas. “What we don’t want is for all these kids to get a birth certificate and then the case is dismissed, but then next month we’re going to be back with the same problem.”Life for undocumented people in the U.S. is difficult, and the denial of birth certificates represents another form of official discrimination against them. “What’s happening now is they’re being discriminated against, even though the child is a citizen and has a constitutional right to a birth certificate, the child and the parent are being discriminated against because they are undocumented,” said Hector Guzman Lopez, who works with Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center and the South Texas Civil Rights Project.
Increased policing along the entire U.S.-Mexico border has cut the mobility of undocumented people. By way of example, undocumented people cannot leave the Rio Grande Valley without risking their lives.“Undocumented people are essentially trapped to a large degree in the Rio Grande Valley here on the U.S. border, there’s another checkpoint as you go north, and if you don’t have any documents you can’t pass there, you will be picked up and put in a detention center,” said Guzman. “Either you risk your life going through the brush, or you pay somebody to sneak you across, which is very dangerous as well, so most people who are undocumented workers and their families, they stay in the Valley.”
The Texas Department of State Health Services and others named in the lawsuit filed a motion to dismiss the case on July 22, claiming that Texas has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment.
But the plaintiffs are not backing down and the legal case is growing, with more families, like the Duartes, joining the list of plaintiffs. “We’re not bad people, we try and do everything legally, especially for [our children] because we can’t [get papers], but they can,” said Duarte.
Dawn Paley is a journalist and author of Drug War Capitalism, AK Press 2014. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_