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Texas, facing a lawsuit, makes it easier for U.S.-born children of immigrants to get birth certificates

Last year, a group of Central American and Mexican immigrant parents sued Texas in federal court, claiming that the state had denied their children birth certificates and access to vital services.

Now, Texas officials have agreed to expand the list of documents that allow immigrant parents who entered the country illegally to obtain birth certificates for their U.S.-born children. The parents’ lawsuit has now been stayed pending enforcement of the new policy during the next nine months.

“It is a victory absolutely for all of the U.S. citizen children who are born here in Texas to undocumented parents. I think they are going to get all their benefits to which they are entitled,” said lead attorney Jennifer Harbury of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc., which represented the children. “We have a great deal of work to do in the transition state. But I think in the end, we’re going to get a better system out of it.”

The 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship for children born on U.S. soil, but Texas authorities added significant barriers in recent years to undocumented immigrants seeking birth certificates for U.S.-born children.

Hundreds of immigrant parents along the southern Texas border have been denied birth certificates during the last three years, the families’ attorneys said, as authorities made it more difficult for those lacking access to U.S.-issued identification to use alternatives.

“Without birth certificates, our clients lived in constant fear of having their families torn apart and their American-born children deported. They also struggled to get access to basic education, health and child-care services,” said Efrén Olivares, regional legal director of Texas Civil Rights Project’s south Texas office, which represented the parents. “This settlement will be life-changing for immigrant communities across the state.”

The stricter guidelines came as the state saw an influx during the last two years of Central American migrant family members into the Rio Grande Valley — 34,289 since October — and President Obama attempted to expand executive action immigration programs ultimately blocked by the U.S. Supreme court last month.

According to state policy, registrars could not accept consular identification cards, popularly known as matriculas, issued to foreign nationals. Many immigrant parents in the country illegally did not bring identification issued in their home countries, lost them or had them stolen when they migrated, and could not return home to get them.

In California, immigrant parents routinely use the matricula card to obtain birth certificates. In Arizona, lawmakers failed in recent years to pass proposals that would have denied or restricted birth certificates to children born to immigrants who entered the country illegally.

Under the agreement, Texas registrars still will not accept matriculas, Harbury said. But they must accept two supporting documents and a form of secondary identification from immigrant parents, such as a Mexican voter registration card or Salvadoran national identification.

More than two dozen new qualifying supporting documents include a recent utility bill with current address; school transcript; auto insurance card; lease; hunting license; marriage license; cellphone bill; or library card.

Though the agreement doesn’t change state law or policies, “it expands the list of supporting documents significantly to include documents available to undocumented people,” Olivares said.

The state already accepted Mexican voter ID cards, but until this year, the Mexican government didn’t issue them in the U.S. Olivares said the attorneys negotiated with the state to accept the new cards issued to Mexican migrants in the U.S. 

Some of the families that sued have documents that meet the new criteria and are reapplying for birth certificates. Others are applying for identification from their home countries, which Olivares said would probably take several weeks.

“We haven’t had any test runs yet,” he said, adding, “That’s one of the reasons the case will not be dismissed — in case the state or the local registrars are not compliant, we can take it back to the judge. Hopefully no one will be turned away.”

The agreement comes at a time when birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants has been challenged by Donald Trump and other conservatives.

“This is yet another example of how our institutions are being asked to accommodate foreigners who think they are above the law,” said Jon Feere, legal policy analyst at the conservative Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. “This entire issue could be avoided if people entered our country lawfully. Texas officials now are expected to become experts in a variety of foreign documents of questionable reliability.”

A spokeswoman for Republican Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton’s office, which handled the case, referred questions to the Department of State Health Services, the agency that supervises the roughly 400 local registrars across Texas that issue birth certificates.

Chris Van Deusen, a department spokesman, said the agreement “will allow the state to continue to provide necessary birth certificates to authorized people and do so in a way that maintains the security of state birth records.”

He said the department would accept “certifications” issued by Salvadoran consulates as secondary identification and was reviewing documents provided by the consulates of Guatemala and Honduras.

In addition to accepting more forms of identification, Texas officials also agreed to train registrars, create posters and pamphlets explaining the requirements, and add a hotline for complaints that staff will review, Harbury said, “making sure the rules are consistently applied.”

While the lawsuit has made its way through the courts, Harbury said, some of the children who were unable to get birth certificates missed out on medical services, while others had trouble registering for Head Start or Section 8 housing.

“I’m hoping to get all of that straightened out in the next few weeks,” she said.

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley who had called on state officials to change birth certificate requirements after the lawsuit was filed, praised the agreement as “a step in the right direction.”

“I’m pleased that the state will now expand the types of documents that parents can present to obtain birth certificates for their children born in the United States,” Hinojosa said. “These children are U.S. citizens and are entitled constitutionally to receive their own birth certificates.”

Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of the nonprofit La Union del Pueblo Entero office near the border in San Juan, Texas, held a news briefing about the agreement at her office Monday with some of the families who filed the lawsuit.

“This is a critical victory for immigrant families, but it is also a victory for the constitutional rights of all of us,” Valdez-Cox said. “Questioning the citizenship of U.S.-born, citizen children of immigrant parents erodes our constitutional freedoms and protections, causes instability for parents and children, and undermines the guarantee that all of our children will unquestionably be citizens.”

She noted that more than 48,000 people signed petitions asking the state to stop denying birth certificates to immigrant parents. Standing in front of a handmade sign that said in Spanish, “My children need their birth certificate,” Valdez-Cox pointed to one of the mothers previously denied.

“She has since already received her voter card, which they said will be accepted,” Valdez-Cox said, as those assembled applauded.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@mollyhf

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