COLUMN ONE : Rio Grande Midwives Deliver Citizenship : A birth certificate scam sheds light on a thriving network of women who help Mexican mothers have babies in Texas. Under lax laws, they can declare the newborns Americans.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For hundreds of Mexican women, some here legally and some not, the cardboard stork outside Maria Elena Tafoya's birthing room signals the doorway to a brighter future.

Inside, on a small bed with a rubber sheet, under a portrait of the Virgin Mary, their children enter the world on U.S. soil--a minor distinction in geographic terms but one that carries big advantages economically. Tafoya, 57, serves both as midwife and de facto immigration judge, conferring U.S. citizenship at the moment of delivery, no questions asked.

"The people who come to me look at this as an investment," said Tafoya, the founder and former president of the Rio Grande Valley midwives' association. "Not to get government benefits but to give their children more opportunities in the future: to work, to study, to be somebody important."

It is a testament to the uniquely symbiotic culture of the border that midwives, parteras , perform more than 10% of all births in Texas' southernmost corner, compared with just 1.7% statewide. But the business of some Rio Grande midwives, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, has gone beyond just exploiting loopholes in federal immigration law.

In the largest birth-certificate scam ever uncovered by the INS, authorities have charged Tafoya and at least four other midwives with doctoring paperwork to make it appear as though they had delivered babies in the United States when the infants were born in Mexico. As a result, officials say, more than 1,500 children, most of them living in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, are in possession of illicit Texas birth certificates.

The parents, who allegedly paid $800 to $1,200 for the documents, have not been targeted for prosecution. Most of the midwives, in exchange for cooperating with investigators, also will avoid prison terms at their sentencing next month. What authorities want most is simply to identify all of the fraudulent records to prevent the children from applying for Social Security cards or other benefits.

"We just want to keep those kids out of the system," said INS Special Agent Gilbert Trevino, adding that at least another half-dozen midwives remain under investigation. "I'm looking at the future. I'm thinking about the taxpayers."

Although some fraud had long been suspected, the scale of the Rio Grande document scam has cast a spotlight on the lax regulation of midwifery in Texas, where there are few provisions to prevent an unscrupulous partera from lying about the details of a birth.

The case also underscores some of the ambiguous aspects of U.S. immigration law, which allows Mexican residents to obtain temporary permits for shopping or family visits, provided they don't venture more than 25 miles beyond the border. Despite the millions of dollars spent every year to keep illegal immigrants out, it's possible for a pregnant woman in Matamoros to take a taxi across the international bridge and legally give birth in Texas to a U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, the government foots the hospital bill for those births if the mother is indigent, regardless of her immigration status. That infuriates nobody here more than the midwives, who complain that their patients are being lured away by the generosity of U.S. taxpayers.

"Yes, it's contradictory, but then so is almost everything about the laws that regulate the border," said Tony Zavaleta, an expert on folk medicine and dean of the liberal arts college at the University of Texas at Brownsville. "You've got to remember, we're joined at the hip down here--we're Siamese twins--with the same economic bloodlines and genealogical bloodlines and cultural bloodlines. If you sever one side, it makes both sides bleed."

In California, despite the proximity to Mexico, there is no comparable culture of midwifery. Prompted by concerns over health and safety, lawmakers pulled the plug on the profession some four decades ago, agreeing only last year to begin setting up a licensing process.

In the meantime, a small unregulated network of midwives has managed to stay in business, but birth records show they delivered just 629 babies in 1993, the last year for which figures are available.

By comparison, 5,530 babies were delivered that year by licensed Texas midwives, most of them clustered along the banks of the Rio Grande, where they assist women living on both sides of the border. More than 40% of those babies, in fact, were born in just two border counties, Hidalgo and Cameron, where parteras dot the landscape unlike anywhere else.

Almost all of them operate out of their homes, usually humble little bungalows in working-class neighborhoods with one room set aside for births, somewhere between the bathroom and kitchen. Most have a hand-painted sign out front, often of a stork hoisting a newborn in its bill, which serves as a kind of universal beacon.

One of the best-known establishments is operated in Brownsville by Margarita Garcia, who charges $350 to deliver a child. Her claim to fame, apart from 18 years of experience, is that she lives just three blocks from the border--in a house that sits under the golden arches of a McDonald's.

"Everybody knows where to find me," she said.

Just a few more blocks down Jackson Street is the home of another veteran midwife, 48-year-old Trini Saldivar, whose office is adorned with dozens of photos from her more than 1,000 successful deliveries. "A baby is God's way of saying the world should go on," says a poster on the wall.

Like most midwives in the Rio Grande Valley, Saldivar was born and raised in Mexico, where she trained as a nurse before coming to the United States in the 1970s. Although she is a legal resident, she remains a Mexican citizen and communicates best in Spanish.

Parteras , she insists, have thrived primarily for cultural reasons, offering a relatively inexpensive service in a non-threatening environment. Women are assured of being treated by a Latina practitioner while avoiding the bureaucracy associated with most publicly funded clinics.

But Saldivar also concedes that the prospect of instant citizenship is the lure that draws many of her patients across the border, a fact that does not entirely jibe with her own political views.

She takes pride, for instance, in helping hard-working families move beyond their impoverished conditions--"any human being would," Saldivar said. But don't get her started on those women who look for welfare to pave the way: " Senor , I'm paying a lot of taxes for that class of woman to be coming over here." And even worse, she contends, are those social workers who assist undocumented women in obtaining Medicaid coverage.

"They should tell those women, 'Look, if you don't have the money, don't go to a hospital, don't even go to a partera ,' " she said. "Stay in your own country. Have your baby over there."

Since Texas health officials were first mandated to fund emergency medical care for illegal immigrants in 1988, the number of midwife-assisted births in Cameron County has dropped 30%, while the number of hospital births has increased 57%.

As a result, midwives say, most of their patients tend to be far more solidly rooted in Mexico's middle class. One pregnant woman, who gave her name only as Senora Rodriguez, recently arrived at Saldivar's home on a 72-hour visitor's pass, which is issued to Mexican residents with a record of stable employment. She was accompanied by her first child, Mariel, born four years ago under the same roof.

Even though the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants can seek legal residency for their parents once they turn 21, Rodriguez said she has no desire to relocate or apply for benefits on this side of the Rio Grande. In Matamoros, she is an elementary school teacher and her husband works for the phone company.

"My life is in Mexico," she said. "I'm only doing this for the kids."

The legal avenues for Mexican women to have their babies on U.S. soil are so wide that it almost seems odd anyone would risk trafficking in bogus birth certificates. But the system of registering midwife-assisted births is so lax, officials say, that the chances of getting caught, even now, are slim.

The state's 259 licensed midwives are all required to undergo at least 80 hours of medical training plus an apprenticeship, which authorities credit for a generally high rate of safety. When it comes to filling out paperwork, however, there are virtually no safeguards to prevent a midwife from inventing a U.S. address for the child.

"If somebody's a documented midwife, she could submit certificates all day long and we would never question it," said John Murphy, deputy registrar for the state Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Tipped by an informant, the INS began investigating two San Benito midwives in 1992, eventually concluding that Tafoya and Rosalinda Esquivel were responsible for doctoring more than 600 birth certificates. In some cases, officials say, Tafoya and Esquivel actually went so far as to recruit mothers who were recuperating in Mexican birthing centers.

In hopes of snaring more midwives, the INS waited three years to charge the women, who could have faced five-year prison terms and fines of $250,000. Two midwives in Brownsville recently were charged with selling fraudulent documents. A fifth indicted midwife, Josefa Concepcion Uribe de Buitron, is believed to have fled to Mexico.

"Once they figured out how easy it was, they just got out of control," said Trevino, the lead INS investigator. "It boiled down to greed."

In separate interviews, Tafoya and Esquivel, who have both pleaded guilty, denied that they profited from their enterprise or that they recruited children in Mexico. Most of the women, Tafoya said, were already patients of hers who, for whatever reason, were unable to make it to her birthing center in San Benito, about 20 miles north of Mexico.

"I just helped them, without thinking of the consequences," said Tafoya, as she sat in her office, surrounded by framed nursing degrees and plaques of appreciation for founding the local midwife council, Parteras Hispanas del Valle. "In the end, I lost everything, though, my prestige and my integrity. I wish I could disappear."

After her sentencing, she will probably be stripped of her midwifery license. The INS also is reviewing her case to determine whether her U.S. residency can be revoked. But in the meantime, life goes on in certain inexorable ways.

On June 5 at 4:45 a.m., as she has done so many times in the past, Tafoya welcomed another U.S. citizen into the world: Ricardo Jaramillo, a healthy 6-pound, 8-ounce boy.

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