RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A number of Republican presidential candidates have suggested automatic citizenship should be denied to American-born children of undocumented immigrants. And in Austin, Texas today, this very question will be playing out in federal court. Mexican families who are in the U.S. illegally are suing the state for denying birth certificates to their children born in Texas. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Consider the case of Luisa, a 33-year-old mother from Veracruz, Mexico. She's undocumented, and she lives in Brownsville with two Texas-born children who are effectively stateless because she cannot obtain their birth certificates.
LUISA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: She says when she presented Mexican identification documents to the Brownsville Vital Statistics office, the registrar told her she cannot get a birth certificate for her son because she's here in Texas illegally.
LUISA: A birth certificate is a foundational document. Luisa says without it, her 5-year-old son has been denied enrollment in Medicaid and in a public primary school.
LUISA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: She says a Catholic priest even told her he has to see a birth certificate in order to baptize her newborn daughter, who sleeps wrapped in a yellow blanket during this interview in her lawyer's office. Luisa asked to omit her last name because she's not in the country legally. The problem for Luisa and scores of other undocumented mothers is that the Texas Department of State Health Services tightened up its issuance of birth records in 2013. The changes were made in the interests of preventing fraud and identity theft and foiling terrorists. What this has meant in practice is that local registrars have stopped accepting an ID card issued by Mexican consulates called a matricula. And they've stopped accepting foreign passports without a valid visa, which, of course, an undocumented parent does not have.
CARLOS GONZALEZ GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: All day, employees at the Mexican consulate in Austin make laminated matricula ID cards and issue passports to its citizens who live in Central Texas. Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez is the consul general.
GUTIERREZ: We don't expect a sub-national government, like the government of Texas, to interfere in relations between the United States and Mexico. Because we honor the passports of the United States, we expect the Unites States is going to honor our passports.
BURNETT: He says over the past year, Mexican consulates all over Texas have heard from hundreds of parents who say they're now unable to obtain birth certificates for their Texas-born children. The consul filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a lawsuit that's being argued in federal court in Austin today. A group of immigrant parents and children is suing the state health department for its, quote, "harsh interpretation of ID requirements." Luisa is one of the plaintiffs. State health officials declined an interview. A spokesman emailed a statement saying the department provides birth certificates without regard to the requestor's immigration status. He says matriculas have never been accepted because it's not a secure document, a charge Mexico strenuously denies. Jim Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents some of the plaintiffs. He wonders if the anti-immigrant mood among conservative Texas lawmakers prompted the changes.
JIM HARRINGTON: Why did this suddenly happen when the system was functioning just fine? Why are you penalizing the kids?
BURNETT: The basic argument in today's trial is that the 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil. But without a birth certificate, a person is not a citizen. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.