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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Documenting Identity: Birth Certificates

A few days ago a federal judge in the United States upheld (for now) Texas' right to deny undocumented migrants access to US  birth certificates for their US citizen children born in the United States.

Birth certificates were provided in the past to parents who could produce a Mexican expatriate identity document called a matricula consular card.  Texas official changed their policy and no longer accept this as proof of identity.  The judge who heard the case brought by desperate parents trying to enroll their citizen children in school, or get medical care for them, refused to issue an emergency injunction against Texas saying that the court needed more information before it could rule for or against.

Answering the question Who are you? can be more complicated than most of us realize.  We may answer that question (or volunteer that information)  many times as we go about our daily lives and 99.9% of the time we are trusted .

When we write an article, for example, and we say that we are British in our bio, how many readers ask for proof?  Or when we have coffee with a friend in France who proudly proclaims that she's French, we assume that she's telling the truth and we don't ask her for her certificat de nationalité française.  Or when I'm asked by the crew of the ship I took to Miyajima this weekend and I answered "American".  The crew simply handed me an English guidebook; they did not ask for my passport.

It is only when we have dealings with a state that definitively documenting our identity becomes essential.  To get an identity card, a passport, a residency card, or access to services reserved for citizens, a state doesn't always take your word that you even exist  - much less accept your assertion that you are American, Japanese, German or Brazilian.  States usually want something that documents presence on this planet from birth.

This is called a "breeder document" and it is vitally important.   For lack of a "breeder document" that enables us to get other documents, we can be be denied many things:  access to services,  the right to leave a country, entry into another country,  or residency in a country.   We can even be deported assuming that the authorities can themselves establish an identity for us that corresponds to a country to which we can be sent. (Interestingly enough this is an issue and there are people languishing in deportation centers all around the world because the local authorities can't make a match and have no idea where to send them.)

The trouble begins because not all countries document birth in the same way, or at all.  According to the United Nations Development Program,  "Only about 65% of all births are registered globally..."     And looking at the countries that do have a method for recording births, they all have different processes, customs, and document formats, all of which can change over time and are managed via via very different processes and by different levels of authority depending on the country.

Consider for a moment the difficulties the French have had with Mayotte, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar which became a French department in 2011.  The difficulties in extending the French civil registration system to a population that numbers just a little over 200,000 people have been legion.  According to Claudine Hardy's essay in Identification and Registration Practices in Transnational Perspective, as late as 2007 the  commission charged with managing the integration was still encountering the following problems:
"Families with inconsistent names for children because the father's or mother's name have changed over time... The very notion of a patronymic name was unknown until 2000. Difficulties encountered by adult persons realizing that their birth was never declared in the first place:  research in the town hall's records, search for witnesses, enquiry on the basis of approximate birth date." 
Lest those of us sitting comfortably in OECD countries think that these problems are confined to small outposts far removed from what we smugly think of as "civilization", let's take another example - a very timely one since it demonstrates that the troubles with Texas  are not new in the United States.  Have a look at this 2010 article, Undocumented Citizens: 
The Crisis of U.S. Birth Certificates, 1940-1945, which has this chart showing the status of birth registration in the US in 1922:

Registration-area states (at least 90% of each year's births registered) are in red; states with "laws under trial" are in pink; states with "unsatisfactory laws" are in yellow.
In 1922 only 29 states registered at least 90% of the birth in their territories.  This fact provoked a crisis during World War II because there were federal requirements for receiving benefits and working in the defense industry.  Suddenly, large numbers of Americans had to prove their citizenship and that meant obtaining a birth certificate.

According to Shane Landrum this was a nightmare for citizens and local authorities alike:   "Despite the importance of being able to prove one’s citizenship with a birth certificate, in the early 1940s, about 43 million Americans—nearly one-third of working-age population—had no such document. Their births had never been recorded by government, and they faced complex and unfamiliar procedures for documenting their own births."

There were some very creative solutions to this problem.  Some native born Americans simply used forged documents:  "By May 1942, at least four separate businesses in Los Angeles purported to help would-be defense workers get birth certificates."  Some states like California and Virginia had procedures called "delayed birth registration" but this was costly and sometimes, as was the case of Virginia, race was an issue.  Virginia law required the applicant to specify if he was "white" or "colored".  Failure to indicate one or the other meant no birth certificate and thus no job or access to benefits.

It was so bad that in 1942 the US government blinked and gave up: " ...the War Manpower Commission announced that defense-plant workers no longer needed to show a birth certificate as proof of their citizenship. Instead, they could swear to their citizenship 'in the presence of an Army or Navy plant representative,' signing their names and agreeing to a $10,000 fine and up to 5 years in prison if they were lying."

In 21st century America,  the situation is so much better.  Or is it?  Yes and no.  An American born today will almost certainly have his or her birth registered.  Obtaining a copy, however, means knowing which one of the 16,000 different offices that can issue birth certificates in the United States to which one should apply.   Many local authorities have on-line systems for requesting one, but few controls over who is making the request.  (Note that this is not unusual - France has such a system where one self-certifies that he or she has a right to a copy.)

So should anyone put their trust in Texas and their ability to manage this process in a fair and efficient manner?  I don't know, folks.  Their insistence on refusing birth certificates without some sort of identification might be perfectly legitimate except that it appears to be targeted at one population in particular.  I note that they do accept a Driver's License as a Primary Identification. This is utter horse manure - my French husband has a US driver's license and he is certainly not a citizen of the US, nor is he a resident there.   Take that one out of equation (and watch Americans in Texas scream about the stupidity of government and how dare those bureaucrats not trust them)  and I might think better of their efforts.

Almost all systems (even modern ones) for registering birth and obtaining documentation of that fact are deficient in one way or another: inconsistent, decentralized to the point of absurdity and prone to forgery and identity theft. What is amazing is that many modern states still rely on them almost exclusively to establish identity.

Because, frankly, between that piece of paper and a person, there is nothing to link the two except faith and trust.


Sauve said...

Actually, the problem never occurred in Texas for myself nor my family. When we lost everything in a fire it was simply a matter of showing my social security card and using one other piece of identification, in my case a bank statement and utility bill from the city, to get a copy of my drivers license. Once I had that, I requested notarized copies of all our birth registrations, my marriage and my divorce records, and finally copies of my children's social security cards.

Next up! My eldest daughter moved to California a short time there after. She lost everything due to a bad relationship. She didn't bother to try and restore any of it for well over 4 years, so was driving without a license from anywhere and paying her various roommates the portion of her rent and utilities. All she had was a student id. When that was no longer accepted she had to get a drivers license, but that was a no-go until she could show up with her birth registration and her social security card. Social security refused to help her without her birth registration. The county of Riverside, in California where she was born, refused to issue her a birth registration until she returned with a social security card and a drivers license. The result is that even though California and the USA didn't mind accepting her annual taxes she went without any form of ID for over a decade. How did she do it? She hired an attorney.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Amazing, Sauve.

50 states and 16,000 different authorities that an issue birth certificates and they can have very different requirements.

I have had to order birth certificates many times for the French authorities because they require a copy that is no older than 6 months (I kid you not.) So the old notarized copies I have never work and I have to keep reordering them. But there is an on-line service for that for King County and I just put in my info and credit card number and they send them to me via express mail in France.

God help me if they ever decide they want me to show up in person.