- Associated Press - Sunday, October 16, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - Laura Vanessa Gutierrez doesn’t exist, at least on paper.

She is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was never issued a birth certificate. She’s one of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of U.S. residents not recognized by any nation. They are the so-called “doubly invisible.”

“It’s the worst thing that can happen to you,” Gutierrez told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2e5g7HS).

She can’t get a driver’s license. She can’t open a bank account. If stopped by police, Gutierrez couldn’t even show that she’s a Mexican national.

Because of security procedures, the stay-at-home mother can’t even enter her children’s school because she has no ID. Last May, her four kids secretly rehearsed at home for the elementary school Mother’s Day show, knowing that their mom wouldn’t be able to hear their songs and receive their roses. She had to wait outside.

No one can say precisely how many people share Gutierrez’s dilemma, but globally, the problem’s scope is enormous. UNICEF estimates that in 2012 alone, 57 million infants - four of every 10 babies delivered worldwide - were not registered with civil authorities. In Somalia, 97 percent of births aren’t registered. In India, fewer than half are. Poverty lies behind both parts of the problem: In countries around the world, very poor people are more likely to slip through registration systems at birth and also more likely to emigrate in search of work.

Gutierrez was born in Mexico, where new laws have begun to address the enormous problem. According to Karen Mercado, president of the Be Foundation Derecho a la Identidad, about 12 percent of the population in Mexico, or between 10 million and 14 million people, were never registered in the office of National Population Registry. Many were born in rural areas or places far from registration offices. And until recently, it cost the equivalent of $12 to register a newborn in Mexico - too much for the nation’s poorest residents to afford.

“The states with the greater numbers of these people tend to be the poorest, like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas or the state of Mexico, which are regions of origin for a majority of emigrants,” Mercado points out.

In 2014, Be Foundation led a constitutional reform in Mexico that made it free to register a newborn. And last month, Mexico passed a constitutional reform that will help at least some immigrants to the U.S. obtain a Mexican birth certificate. Starting in 2017, Mexican consulates can issue extemporaneous birth certificates to people who never before appeared in Mexico’s official records.

“The ordeal for these people without recognized identities is now over,” says Mexican Sen. Gabriela Cuevas, who supported the law. “They would be able to open bank accounts, have a passport or a (Mexican) voter ID.”

At the beginning of this year, the Be Foundation began attempting to reach the people affected, visiting cities in Texas, California, Illinois and New York to publicize the new law and offer help obtaining documents. Without the budget for a high-profile campaign, the group has been limited to distributing fliers and giving talks to small groups of immigrants.

So far they’ve identified approximately 300 doubly invisible people in the U.S.; 160 of those are in Texas. More than 50 cases are in Dallas; 45, including Gutierrez, are in Houston. Mercado expects all those numbers to grow rapidly: “We believe we are talking about tens of thousands, if not more.”

Many people are afraid to reveal their situations. Maria Villegas hesitated to call the Foundation’s hotline (1-844-998-1010), but her family insisted.

“I thought that I was a strange case, that there were no people like me,” she says.

Villegas, now in her late 30s, came to the U.S. with her mother when she was 2 years old. She works in her home, making quinceanera dresses and party accessories, and has five American-born children with her husband, a legal resident. Twice now, Villegas has tried to legalize her status in the U.S.: once, years ago, sponsored by her husband; and more recently, sponsored by her eldest daughter, now 24.

“Both times, immigration has accepted my process,” said Villegas, “but everything has stopped because I don’t have a birth certificate.”

Daniel Perez, 22, has never seen an official ID with his name on it.

“I learned of my problem when I was in high school and started to make plans about my university studies,” he said, “but I realized with a lot of frustration that I would never have those opportunities. I felt very sad when I recognized that I don’t exist, that the doors are closed for me.”

His father, Jose Ramon Perez, drives him every day to temporary jobs, terrified that the young man could be detained and deported at any moment.

“My family lives in fear from day to night,” the father said.

Perez’s undocumented parents brought him from Puebla shortly after he was born. If he’d had a birth certificate, he could have benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive act, which provides people brought to the U.S. at a young age temporary relief from deportation while they study and work.

His father says he feels guilty about his son’s situation. Like many immigrants, he thought he expected to stay in the U.S. only a short time, just long enough to make enough money to buy a house back in Puebla. But time passed, and the money never seemed enough.

Raul Ramirez, 23, was born in Michoacan. With the Be Foundation’s help, he says, he hopes “to finally have a birth certificate to prove that I exist, to study, to buy a car.”

Mexican consulates are bracing for a rush of applicants in February, when the law takes effect.

“This is a major change that requires a restructuring of logistics to implement proper communications between the database systems of consulates and the pertinent Mexican institutions,” says Daniel Millan Valencia, spokesman for the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations.

Much of the government’s work is related to preventing fraud. Mexico and other countries’ birth certificates are valuable trafficking assets. Several interviewees said they had been approached in the U.S. by people offering “official birth certificates” for a fee between $2,000 and $4,000.

“We know of many scams that victimize immigrants, and certainly Mexico has detected several instances of robbery of printed unassigned birth certificates,” said Nallely Anguiano, a Be Foundation coordinator.

In recent years, Mexican authorities have reported thefts and disappearances of numbered certificates. Local investigations indicate that they end up in the hands of traffickers, who sell them to clients to obtain false passports and IDs abroad.

Anguiano says the new reform combats such crimes by providing the doubly invisible an official avenue to obtain legitimate records.

Villegas, the mother of five, said she is anxious to see her own birth certificate for the first time. With the help of the Be Foundation, she plans to have her case prepared by February, as soon as the law will let her file it.

Gutierrez is excited: “I’m going to have my registration, I will get the (Mexican) passport, my voter card. I will be able to open a bank account .”

Trying to hold back tears, Gutierrez says that what she longs for the most is to be present at all of her younger daughters’ important moments in school.

“I want to see it all,” she says. “The moment they enter the school for the first time. Where they are going to sit in the class. Sharing what they have learned with their teachers in the classroom. I want to see them having breakfast in the cafeteria; I want to be a volunteer parent. That is my dream.”


Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com



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