Undocumented Mexicans A Problem In Mexico, Too

Many Mexicans fail to register their children’s birth

Millions of undocumented migrants live a shadow existence in the United States, but it may come as a surprise that south of the border, Mexico has a shadow population of its own. It’s made up of Mexicans who lack a formal birth certificate and are technically invisible in their own country. They can’t vote, get a school diploma or practice a profession. Tourism in this region is a big employer, particularly for the poorest job seekers in nearby mountain communities. But some won’t be hired in places like hotels and restaurants because they have no documents establishing their legal identity.

Octavio Martinez is known as the man who brings these people back from oblivion. He is a community organizer who works tirelessly to bring these people back from oblivion. On a recent afternoon he rides in a battered old minivan with no air conditioning. Martinez doesn’t drive himself because he’s paralyzed from the waist down. Six years ago, when he was working in law enforcement, criminals shot at his car. A bullet struck his spinal cord and forever changed his life. He’s also built a generous network of friends from taxi drivers to attorneys who are quick to lend a hand when he needs it.

A young woman signals to Martinez from the sidewalk. She wears a torn tank top and grasps the hand of a toddler by her side. “You’re the one who does the civil registries, right?” she asks. Her husband needs to get his paperwork in order. She asks how much it costs and they agree to meet over the weekend. Mexico’s National Registry estimates that seven million to nine million Mexicans are without a proper birth certificate. Unlike the United States, babies aren’t automatically registered at birth. Mexican parents must take their newborns to the local civil registry office. Those who don’t, typically live in Mexico’s rural or indigenous regions or are extremely poor and uneducated. A lot of these people don’t understand the importance of having a birth certificate until they have to get their children enrolled in school and by then the children are five or six years old and they have to pay fees. People who live on less than $5 a day look on a birth certificate as a luxury.

On his own, Martinez registers hundreds of people year round. In the 15 years he’s been a community organizer he estimates he’s helped some 10,000 people. The city acknowledges the importance of his work by paying him a $275 stipend twice a month. Most of it goes to paying expenses. Martinez and his wife mostly live off a convenience store they run from home. On a recent family visit, Martinez traveled 20 minutes out of town on a rugged dirt road. The woman he met needed to get her boy registered. He’s nine years old and can’t get credit for school. “We now know that registering your child is important,” his mother said. “Without a birth certificate it’s like they don’t exist.”

Undocumented Mexicans are sentenced to a life with little promise. Not only are they deprived of an education and a formal job -- they can’t open a bank account, get legally married or register their own children. Even worse, they are often targeted by organized crime, either as a victim or a recruit. Not having a formal identity makes it extremely hard for police to track them down.

Noe Emmanuel is one of millions of Mexicans without a birth certificate. Without a legal form of identification he can’t get a school diploma or, later, a formal job. Just recently a church group helped Mata Luna get registered. But this late in life, the most she’ll benefit from it is by getting government welfare. Also when she dies, she won’t end up nameless in a pauper’s grave. “I’m glad to have my papers,” she said. “Before, I lived like an animal. Now I live like an actual person.”

Currently a Foundation involved in registering these people is touring major cities in the United States because Mexico’s undocumented citizens also migrate north, where their situation only gets more complex. They are not only non-citizens of the United States but they are also non-citizens in Mexico. They’re doubly invisible, doubly undocumented. They can’t get any consular protection or any documents, because they have no country.