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Lawsuit Forces Texas to Make It Easier for Immigrants to Get Birth Certificates for Children

25 Jul

A woman and her child were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was settled with Texas agreeing to changes that would allow parents without legal immigration status to obtain birth certificates for their children born in the United States.

After Nancy Hernandez gave birth to a baby girl in a hospital in Texas in 2013, she went to a county office to get a birth certificate, just as she had after her first two children were born in the state.

But officials told Ms. Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant living in the United States illegally, that the rules had changed. Without valid documents, she would not be able to get a birth certificate to show that her daughter was an American-born citizen.

Last year, Ms. Hernandez and about two dozen other immigrants sued, saying they could not obtain the documents Texas officials were demanding to prove their identities. On Friday, Texas agreed to a settlement that will expand the types of documents parents can present, allowing those without legal immigration status to obtain certificates for their children again.

The babies whose parents brought the federal suit were born in Texas medical facilities, so it was not in doubt that they were citizens. Lawyers for the parents said the settlement would be “life-changing” for them.

“The bottom line is, there was a category of people who were being locked out of obtaining a birth certificate to which they are entitled constitutionally as citizens born in the United States just because of the immigration status of the parents,” said Efrén Olivares, the legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s South Texas office and the lead lawyer in the lawsuit.

In the settlement, Texas made no changes to the basic rules for birth certificates, which it argued were designed to ensure that the essential documents were correctly issued. But the state agreed to accept several documents from parents that it had started to reject.

The change in practice by Texas registrars dated to 2013, when state leaders were taking steps to stem a surge in illegal border crossings by families from Central America. The next year, Texas sent National Guard troops to the border. Texas led 26 states in a federal lawsuit in 2014 to halt President Obama’s immigration programs to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, which state officials said encouraged more illegal crossings. A tie decision by the Supreme Court in June effectively ended those programs.

The Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, added new fuel to the debate about the children of undocumented immigrants, saying he would cancel their right to citizenship if he became president.

Texas county offices began to require that foreign passports presented by parents include a valid United States visa. Officials also stopped accepting photo identity cards, known as matrículas, that Mexicans obtain from their consulates in the United States. In 2013, the lawsuit said, Texas stepped up enforcement of the new rules.

Parents said they could not obtain the required documents. They had not been able to baptize their children, enroll them in school or sign them up for public health programs so they could be vaccinated. With no legal document proving the babies were their children, parents feared that if they were deported, their families might be separated or that the children might not able to return to the only country where they were citizens.

In court, Texas did not deny its policy, but said that the immigrant families did not need birth certificates to gain access to state programs. But the judge hearing the case, Robert L. Pitman of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, had signaled he was skeptical of that argument.

In a ruling in October, Judge Pitman said Texas’ claim that a birth certificate was not a vital document “simply begs credulity.”

Under the settlement, Texas confirmed that Mexican immigrants will be able to present a Mexican voter identification card. Under a recent change by Mexico, its citizens can now obtain those cards from consulates in the United States.

Parents from three Central American countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — will be able to present documents certified by their consulates. Texas has also set up a review process for parents whose applications were rejected, as well as training for more than 450 county officials who issue birth certificates.

The judge agreed to a monitoring period of nine months to make sure Texas was complying.

Juana Gomez, 34, a Mexican immigrant without legal status, said she was relieved that her two daughters, born in South Texas hospitals, would get their certificates. Ms. Gomez, who has been living in this country for 20 years, said she had to delay their baptisms, and Border Patrol agents had demanded to see their birth certificates at checkpoints well inside the United States.

But Ms. Gomez said she decided to join the lawsuit and risk exposure as an undocumented immigrant because she was concerned that her daughters would grow up without being able to vote.

“It’s just about respecting what is in the Constitution,” Ms. Gomez said of the settlement. “I don’t think of it as just good for me. A lot of mothers are happy and satisfied.”