Immigrant parents living in Texas are suing the state for what they say is the unlawful denial of birth certificates for their US-born children.
The suit, filed in June by a group of parents from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, claims that officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services withheld the birth certificates of 23 American-born children because the parents could not provide the kind of photo identification required under state law.
The case, representing yet another point of contention in the bitter nationwide debate around immigration reform, pits the concept of birthright citizenship against the Lone Star State's strict ID laws.
The 14th Amendment assures the right of citizenship to anyone born on US soil, regardless of the parents’ immigration status.
But Texas ID policy, which immigrant advocates say has been enforced with greater vigor in the last two years, allows for some local registrars to decide whether or not a Matricula Consular or "matriculas” – an ID card issued by local consulates of Latin American nations – are a valid form of identification.
State officials have said they never regarded matriculas as a secure form of identification, because “the issuer doesn’t verify data or documents that go into them,” Chris Van Deussen, press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services, told Fox News.
“Texas has never accepted the consular ID’s,” though “I cannot say that every [local] registrar rejected them,” Mr. Van Deussen said.
The policy is meant is to protect citizens’ identities and personal data, he told NPR.
“[W]e certainly want people to be able to get the documents that they’re entitled to,” he said. “However, we also have a duty to protect the personal information that’s on the birth certificate.”
That’s a valid argument, says Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration attorney at Dykema Cox Smith in El Paso, Texas, and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association based in Washington, DC.
But if that is indeed the state’s defense, Ms. Walker says in a phone interview, then the government will also need to address other forms of identification it does recognize under its administrative code, some of which – such as a medical insurance card – are hardly secure.
“You can’t just decide willy-nilly what’s required,” she says. “They can protect the security of their process … but there is a failure to be consistent and to provide clear guidance.”
As of 2012, the United States had an estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants living within its borders, according to a Pew Research Center report from 2014. California had the largest undocumented immigrant population, with 2.4 million people, while Texas ranked second with 1.7 million.
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Austin, claims that the state’s withholding of birth certificates causes “serious harm” to immigrant parents and their children.
“By denying the Plaintiff children their birth certificates, Defendants have created a category of second-class citizens, disadvantaged from childhood on with respect to health and educational opportunities,” the lawsuit reads. “Defendants are acting beyond the scope of their authority in denying birth certificates on the basis of the parents’ immigration status.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that the Department of State Health Services has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment and cannot be sued in federal court, the Texas Tribune reported.
Texas’ crackdown on consular ID’s followed an increase in the number of Central American children born in the state, Fox reported. About 55,000 families poured across the US-Mexico border in 2014, and about three-quarters of them settled in Texas.
Some advocates say the tougher identification measures are part of a larger pushback against President Obama’s 2012 executive action on illegal immigration, which would protect millions of parents of American children from deportation.
"As immigration became more controversial, they just started clamping down," lead attorney Jennifer Harbury of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, told the Los Angeles Times. Once immigration became an issue they just closed the door, and now it's locked and bolted.”
Walker, who has practiced immigration law for 30 years, said she is disappointed by the Texas government's actions.
"Indeed, it seems focused on trying to prevent undocumented immigrants from trying to obtain birth certificates for their children," who, regardless of their parents' status, are legal citizens of the United States, she said. "It's an example of our lack of understanding and lack of compassion."