California migrants praise Mexican birth certificate initiative

Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, CA

Ángel Ramirez shows his newly printed birth certificate. Photograph: The Guardian

Ángel Ramirez shows his newly printed birth certificate. Photograph: The Guardian

By streamlining a once tortuous process, Mexican consulates have opened the door to driving licences and a more formal status for undocumented nationals

It did not sound the most stirring or romantic topic but Jaime Guzmán, who composes Mexican ballads, reckoned he had found the subject of his next song: birth certificates.

He was on the fourth floor of Mexico’s consulate in Los Angeles, waiting in line for his certificate, and indicated the rows of anxious, hopeful people around him awaiting their turn.

“I may write a song about this,” Guzmán, 46, said. “Seriously. This can make all the difference. It brings you out of the shadows.”

He referred to a Mexican government initiative to start issuing birth certificates in January to citizens at its 50 consulates across the United States.

Before, Mexicans had to return to their birthplace to obtain the document, or ask relatives to lobby on their behalf – both arduous, expensive, time-consuming missions. Now they book an appointment, show proof of identity, pay $13 and walk out with a certificate.

It sounds banal, a bureaucratic tweak, but the new service has potentially profound implications for millions of Mexicans and, longer term, for Latino political power in the US.

With a birth certificate a Mexican living in the US as an undocumented migrant can apply for other Mexican documents, such as a consular identification card and passport, and then avail themselves of recent US immigration reforms, notably the right to apply for a California driving licence, as well as President Barack Obama’s executive actions protecting millions from deportation

 Jaime Guzmán awaits his birth certificate at Mexico’s Los Angeles consulate. Photograph: The Guardian

“It’s a huge deal. You need a birth certificate to get any other document,” said Georgina Marina, the consulate’s head of legal affairs. Many of those who obtained the certificates were “taking baby steps … towards eventual citizenship”, she said.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said it would help undocumented Mexicans to formulate their formal identity in the US.

The LA consulate, an imposing building overlooking MacArthur Park, has hired extra staff and extended hours to night-time and Sundays to process the applications, numbering around 520 daily.

People born in Mexico or of Mexican heritage comprise about a third of LA’s population of 3.8 million. Other consulates in California, where Latinos last year became the single biggest population group, have reported similar surges. About half of the 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally are from Mexico.

Republicans in Congress have threatened to roll back Obama’s executive actions sheltering so-called Dreamers and other undocumented groups from deportation. The bustle and optimism in the LA consulate, however, showed that undocumented Latinos are consolidating their presence in the US and have no plans to, as Mitt Romney once suggested, “self-deport”.

The White House’s immigration reforms dominated media attention but those queueing in the LA consulate said the main purpose of obtaining a birth certificate was to apply for a driving licence.

If you do not live in California, a vast state with malnourished public transport, it is difficult to grasp the necessity of driving. And if you are not undocumented, it is difficult to appreciate the angst of doing so without a licence.

A police stop can lead to vehicle confiscation, fines and deportation – in a blink upending a life. That is why Guzmán, the troubadour, wrote two ballads about driving without a licence. And why he may now write a song – a happy one – about birth certificates. “After 30 years in the US I’ll feel more protected once I get mine,” he said.

Others echoed the sentiment. “I feel more free, more secure,” beamed Ángel Ramírez, clutching his newly printed certificate. For a decade Ramírez, a construction worker, had driven without a US licence. Twice police confiscated his vehicle, he said. He feared the next time he would be deported. “I didn’t like the risk but for work I had to drive,” he said.

In anticipation of his certificate, which gave his date of birth as 29 October 1962, Ramírez had already booked an appointment for a written test at California’s department of motor vehicles, which started granting licences to undocumented people in January. “I’ve been studying,” he said.

 Ángel Ramirez shows his newly printed birth certificate. Photograph: The Guardian

Margarita Hernández, 54, a restaurant cook, said police confiscated her car twice in recent years. Another reason to get a birth certificate: as the mother of US-citizen children she appeared to qualify for protection from deportation under Obama’s executive action.

Obtaining a birth certificate used to be so fraught and onerous many did not even try.

You had to go back to Mexico and lobby a government office in your place of birth – a big deterrent for undocumented people because there was no guarantee of getting back into the US afterwards. (Smuggler guides known as coyotes charge thousands of dollars and on occasion abandon people in the desert.)

The old system did allow people in Mexico to lobby for documentation on behalf of relatives in the US but the process took months or even years. “It was very difficult and expensive. Things would go missing in the post,” said Marina, the consul for legal affairs.

Over the past decade Mexico’s 32 states digitalised birth records and fed the data to a centralised system. Some records in remote, rural areas remain outside the system.

The prospect of Obama’s immigration relief and California granting driving licences to undocumented people gave added impetus to digitalisation, said the legal officer. “It made the effort more urgent.”

Mexico’s bureaucracy, not famed for efficiency, had given its undocumented migrants reason to smile, she added. “They can’t believe the Mexican government is actually doing something for them.”