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For American children of Mexican immigrants, a battle to get documented in Mexico

Daniela Silva Abascal and her father Daniel Silva Soto at home in Puebla, Mexico. Jorge Valencia for Marketplace

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Daniel Silva Soto and his wife had recently moved from their hometown of Puebla, Mexico, to Mesa, Arizona. It was 1996, and Silva Soto was working for a tire disposal business, driving a truck regularly to pick up old tires as far south as Tucson and as north as Flagstaff.

It was in April of that year that the couple had a daughter, Daniela Silva Abascal, born at the Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix. The young family didn’t stay in Arizona much longer. The parents wanted to re-connect with their extended families and by 1997 had moved back to Puebla, where they found new jobs and their children grew up.

Now 22, Silva Abascal is caught in the buzzsaw of the bureaucracies of the U.S., her birth country, and Mexico, the country where she has lived most of her life. She and her parents haven’t been able to obtain documentation for her because the birth certificate they brought with them from Phoenix has been deemed insufficient proof of identity by the Mexican authorities. She’s eligible to receive citizenship from both countries, her lawyer said.

“It’s a very difficult system,” Silva Abascal said.

More than 280,000 thousand children born in the United States live in Mexico but don’t have sufficient documentation to prove their identity in either country, according to numbers released in 2015 by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography. It is a number that is likely growing now that more Mexicans are returning to Mexico than there are people migrating northbound.

“This is a really complicated and common problem,” said Jillian Wagman, an attorney with the Mexico City-based nonprofit Institute for Women in Migration.

The challenges for parents transferring birth documents from the U.S. to Mexico range from differences in document formatting (dates may be transposed, names may be spelled differently) to more elemental issues like obtaining a copy of an American birth certificate from outside the U.S. or proving that the certificate is legitimate. To prove the veracity of a certificate, the parents would need to obtain an official seal from the state of origin called an Apostille, a somewhat arcane document that is used for foreign governments.

“We just never use them in the United States,” Wagman said.

The easiest way to get this seal is for the parent to get it in person, if they’re still in the U.S. Transferring someone’s identity to Mexico is a 10-step process that can take years, Wagman said.

This process could be more manageable if local American governments made children’s documents more accessible to their parents, Wagman said. Or if Mexican authorities were more flexible. But in Mexico City, the civil registry office is likely the city’s busiest bureaucracy, says director Claudia Luengas Escudero. 

Registering adult citizens in Mexico City alone is an ongoing battle, Luengas said. An estimate made after the 2000 Mexican census concluded more than 1.5 million people in Mexico City were living without a birth certificate, Luengas said.

City officials go out daily trying to register people, Luengas said. In some cases, the father denies paternity. In others, the parents themselves never had legal forms of identification, so the foreign-born children of Mexican parents are not a top priority.

“It’s not a crime,” Luengas said. “In fact, the only person who’s harmed is the person who’s not registered.”

In the case of Daniela Silva Abascal, her parents had brought a birth certificate issued by the the Arizona Department of Health Services, but hadn’t been able to regularize her status in Mexico because her certificate hadn’t been Apostilled by the Arizona Secretary of State.

Silva Abascal’s parents do not have a valid visa to enter the United States and had no way of reaching someone in Phoenix who could obtain it for them, Silva Abascal’s father said. After years of looking for solutions, the elder Silva met a Mexican-American lawyer at the country club where he works as a waiter in Puebla who offered to help the family pro-bono.

It was February that the family finally received an Apostilled copy of the birth certificate, and they’re hoping that will be sufficient to begin the process of obtaining Mexican documents, the elder Silva said.

What Silva Abascal cares about the most is being able to study and get a job where she grew up. As for traveling to the U.S.? Maybe someday, she said, visiting the Grand Canyon would be nice.

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