Texas fights immigrants' lawsuit over birth certificates

By Seth Robbins

Published July 23, 2015 7:02AM (EDT)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Texas health officials are asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit by immigrant parents who were denied birth certificates for their U.S.-born children because local authorities refused to recognize as valid certain forms of identification.

Lawyers representing 19 immigrant parents and their 23 children filed suit against the Texas Department of State Health Services after officials refused to issue birth certificates for their U.S.-born children, citing invalid forms of identification. The parents came from Mexico and Central America and living in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Although the parents are not U.S. citizens, their children are, because the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment guarantees the right of citizenship to anyone born on American soil. Without a birth certificate, it can be difficult for parents to access medical care, travel, school enrollment and other benefits available to U.S. citizens.

The Texas Department of State Health Services said in a federal court filing in Austin on Wednesday that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the court lacks jurisdiction over claims against the state agency. Lawyers for the agency also argued that Texas has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued and that its policy does not interfere with any federal regulation. Texas, they said, has the "power to control the circumstances under which it will provide copies of birth certificates."

The health service agency's Vital Statics Unit, which is responsible for issuing birth certificates, previously accepted consular identification cards and other documents issued by foreign governments, according to the lawsuit. But officials have increasingly come to refuse these, making it harder for parents living in the U.S. illegally status to obtain birth certificates for their children, it said. The agency says it never accepted these documents as valid, and there has been no change to the state's identification requirements.

"As a result of this situation, hundreds, and possibly thousands, of parents from Mexico and Central America have been recently denied birth certificates for their Texas-born children," according to the lawsuit filed in May.

Many Mexican immigrants receive identification cards commonly known as matriculas, which are issued by Mexican consulates to citizens living and working in the United States.

Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the agency has "never accepted the matricula consular as adequate identification" because the information used to get them is "not verified by the issuing party."

But the cards were rejected only occasionally until 2013, the lawsuit claims, when the policy began to be enforced "more strictly." The following summer tens of thousands of Central American migrants, many of them families, crossed the border illegally into Texas.

"Many of our clients have been here for 15 to 20 years. They have older kids for whom they were able to get birth certificates with no problem," said Efren Olivares, a senior attorney at the South Texas Civil Rights Project and one of the lawyers representing the immigrant families. Yet their newborns have been refused birth certificates using the same documents, he said.

The denial of the birth certificates comes amid a lawsuit by 26 states to block President Barack Obama's plan to protect as many 5 million immigrants living illegally in the United States from being deported.

That case was recently argued before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a Texas judge temporarily put on hold Obama's executive orders, which would protect parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for several years.

Seth Robbins

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