Hiram Ramirez didn't expect problems this week when she went to get a birth certificate for her newborn daughter, Dulce.
Ramirez, 28, a native of neighboring Reynosa, Mexico, crossed the border illegally and has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for years. Her two older daughters, ages 3 and 14, were U.S.-born, and she easily obtained birth certificates for them using her Mexican voter registration and consular identification card. She relied on the birth certificates to register her girls for school, Medicaid and other government services.
But when the stay-at-home mother arrived at the downtown vital statistics office Thursday, she discovered the rules had changed. Without a U.S. driver's license, visa or Mexican electoral card, she could not obtain a birth certificate for her child.
Though children born in the United States are entitled by law to U.S. citizenship regardless of the immigration status of their parents, Texas authorities have begun placing significant barriers to undocumented immigrants seeking to obtain birth certificates for their U.S.-born children.
Hundreds of immigrant parents along the southern Texas border have been denied birth certificates for U.S.-born children since 2013, immigrant advocates say, as state authorities have made it more difficult to use alternative identification documents from parents who have no access to U.S.-issued papers.
The denials have happened in the past but stepped up significantly after the Obama administration in 2012 expanded its efforts to protect millions of immigrants from deportation, according to lawyers who have filed a lawsuit arguing that the Texas policy is unconstitutional. A second program, proposed by the White House in 2014, would extend deportation protection in some cases to parents of children born in the U.S.
"As a result of this situation, hundreds, and possibly thousands, of parents from Mexico and Central America have recently been denied birth certificates for their Texas-born children," said the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Austin.
State officials say they have always been reluctant to use identity documents that are not backed up with reliable forms of identification.
"We monitor local registrars for compliance. If we encounter a local registrar that is accepting identification that doesn't qualify, we'll let them know," said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Department of State Health Services, which supervises the roughly 400 local registrars around the state that issue birth certificates.
At issue is a state policy, which immigrant advocates say has been enforced with greater vigor since 2013, declaring that state registrars cannot accept the identification cards, popularly known as matriculas, issued to foreign nationals by their local consulates.
This was a crucial decision because many immigrants in the country illegally — many of whom did not bring official identification cards issued in their home countries, or had them stolen along the way — do not have the level of identification that is now required in Texas.
"It says we need a U.S. license we don't have; a [Mexican] passport we have, but with a visa we don't have; voter ID card I have, but it expired," Ramirez said as she cradled her youngest child, dressed in a pink onesie, on her lap. "It's not fair. She has a right to her birth certificate. What are we supposed to do?"
The 14th Amendment guarantees the right to citizenship for children born on U.S. soil, part of the fabric of a nation of immigrants. The lawsuit filed in May names 19 parents of 23 children who were denied birth certificates in the Rio Grande Valley, alleging the refusals are an unconstitutional, discriminatory political tactic and demanding that a judge force the state to comply with federal law.
Attorneys representing the parents — immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico — said the state has used identification requirements as a means of combating the Obama administration's more liberal immigration policy at a time when the state is facing a major influx of new immigrants.
Three-fourths of the more than 55,000 families who surged into the U.S. from Central America last year crossed into the Rio Grande Valley.
"As immigration became more controversial, they just started clamping down," said lead attorney Jennifer Harbury of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
This week, two state lawmakers demanded that the Texas department responsible for issuing birth certificates correct the problem.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat, said the policy is creating a "critical disadvantage" for children who have a right to access medical care, travel, school enrollment and other benefits available to U.S. citizens. "These children were born in the United States, are United States citizens and are entitled to receive their own birth certificates," he said in a statement.
In California, immigrant parents routinely use the matricula card to obtain birth certificates, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
If state officials stopped accepting it, he said, "it would be disastrous. The banks, organizations, even the [Department of Motor Vehicles] use those matriculas now. It's become an integral part of doing business with immigrants, both documented and undocumented."
In Arizona, lawmakers have failed in recent years to pass several proposals that would have denied or restricted birth certificates to children born to immigrants who entered the country illegally.
Harbury sees the denials in Texas as part of a larger backlash by Republican state leaders against President Obama's 2012 executive action on immigration, which would shield from deportation millions of parents of American children who crossed the border illegally. Texas and 25 other states have sued to block the president's programs, arguing before an appeals court last week that they impose added state costs.
"Once immigration became an issue they just closed the door, and now it's locked and bolted," Harbury said.
Texas officials admit they have refused some of the immigrant parents' documents, but contend that they followed state law.
Van Deusen, the health services department spokesman, said that officials provide birth certificates "without regard to the requestor's immigration status," but that they don't accept consular identification cards because underlying documents "are not verified by the issuing party."
"Several other states and some federal agencies also do not accept the matricula as a valid form of identification for the same reason," Van Deusen said.
In McAllen, City Secretary Annette Villarreal said that she was simply enforcing a state directive.
"Until a few years ago we would accept the matricula consular, but the state came down on us," Villarreal said, and "re-emphasized that we should not use the matriculas" because "they're not verifiable."
Villarreal, who has served as city secretary for 11 years, said that some families have alternatives. For example, there may be a relative with proper documentation who can apply. "They can always call their hometown to send them valid forms of identification," she said.
About 60 miles east along the border in Brownsville, Cameron County Clerk Sylvia Garza-Perez was still accepting consular identification cards this week. She even invited Mexican consular staff to train her employees to better screen the cards.
"It's only fair for us to work with our border country, our sister country. And I understand the economic hardship for people to go assemble these documents. It's an inconvenience," Garza-Perez said, and "a hindrance to people's children."
Ramirez used a Mexican voter identification card to get her two older daughters' birth certificates, but it expired before her youngest was born. Her husband has a consular identification card.
Two mothers suing the state spoke Friday alongside their attorneys in the valley office of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is also representing them. Each asked to be identified only by her first name because they fear reprisals from state and immigration officials.
Nancy, 30, who came here from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in 2007, has three children — ages 6, 5 and 2 — who were born here, and for the last two years has been unable to get their birth certificates from Hidalgo County. The oldest two require special education, and Nancy, who sells food at a local shop, worries they will not be able to register for public school or Medicaid.
"In reality, they don't want to give us papers," she said.
Juana, 33, came from Zacatecas, Mexico, 16 years ago and was able to get birth certificates for her 13-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
But two years ago the farmworker was denied a birth certificate for her newborn daughter when officials in Starr County rejected her consular identification card and told her she needed a Mexican electoral card, which she was too young to get before she left, or a Mexican passport with a U.S. visa, which she also doesn't have.
"We can't register for Head Start.... We had problems with Medicaid," she said as her pigtailed daughter drank from a sippy cup in a stroller nearby. "It's racism. Give us the opportunity."