The Under-Registration of Births in Mexico: Consequences for Children, Adults, and Migrants
By Karen Mercado Asencio
President, Be Foundation Derecho a la Identidad
Indigenous, poor, and migrant children in Mexico are often not registered at birth.
The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that approximately 41 percent of all births each year in the developing world (excluding China) go unregistered, denying the rights of over 50 million children to an official identity, name, and nationality. These invisible children lack access to basic social services and are susceptible to a number of dangers
In Latin America and the Caribbean, at least 2 million of the 11 million babies born every year will never be registered. More than 7 million people in Mexico currently lack a birth certificate, according to a recent statement by Carlos Anaya Montero of the National Registry of Population. Due to a lack of an official government-led study, nongovernmental organizations and demographers have estimated the unregistered population in Mexico — especially with respect to children — variously (and with some degree of uncertainty). The Child Rights Information Network, for example, has found that as many as 30 percent of children under the age of 5 are unregistered and practically invisible to the eyes of the Mexican government.
The under-registration of births in Mexico results in the denial of children's access to education, health care, and legal protection and renders them vulnerable to organized crime, human trafficking, and unscrupulous employers. When unregistered children become adults, they face additional economic hardships and consequences for their civic engagement. There is also anecdotal evidence that disenfranchisement due to nonregistration can lead people who have no formal education and few employment prospects to illegally immigrate to the more opportunity-rich United States, but confront additional challenges there of being stateless.
Though Mexico has made some improvements to its registration system, significant challenges remain. This article discusses birth registration in Mexico, the consequences of nonregistation for children and adults, and the challenges faced by unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the United States who, without birth certificates, have no proof of their Mexican citizenship.
About Birth Registration
Birth registration is the official recording of the birth of a child in the civil register. It is the state's official recognition of a child's existence, citizenship, and membership in society. In some cases, the issuance of a birth certificate automatically follows registration, while in others a separate application must be made. In either case, a birth certificate is a vital identity document that proves nationality, place of birth, proof of name, age, and relation to parents, and is often required for the acquisition of a passport, voter registration card, driver license, and other identity and privilege-granting documents.
As unregistered children grow into adults, they find it difficult to claim their economic, social, and political rights and privileges. Those without proof of identity or citizenship face severe barriers to economic participation in that they may not be able to find a job in the formal labor market, open a bank account, obtain microcredit loans, send and receive money, or inherit property. Socially and politically, they may not be able to marry legally, achieve higher education, register the birth of their own children, acquire a passport for international travel or migration, obtain social security or a pension, vote, or run for elected office.
Moreover, proper birth registration is critical in protecting children from human trafficking and child labor, illegal adoptions, detention and prosecution as an adult, and other forms of exploitation such early marriage.
Birth registration also provides tangible benefits to the nation, in that it encourages democracy through the provision of identity and voting eligibility; assists in the accurate planning and implementation of government policies and programs; and promotes the inclusion of those most marginalized in society.
For the international community, birth registration enhances census data, informs the targeting and evaluation of overseas development aid; assists in monitoring global birth rates, health trends, and progress towards international targets such as the Millennium Development Goals, particularly those dealing with child health and education; and provides the key legal fact — the age of the victim — in the prosecution of those who abuse and exploit children.
Generally, unregistered children tend to be found in countries or areas where there is little understanding of the value of birth registration, no public awareness efforts surrounding the need and method for registering births, an inadequate registration network or system, or where the costs of birth registration are prohibitive.
The Under-Registration of Births in Mexico
In Mexico, the national authority for civil registration and identification is the National Registry of Population and Personal Identification's General Office. However, registration itself is decentralized in Mexico and mandatory under each Civil Code of the 32 states, which are divided into 2,460 municipalities. Each municipality is responsible for creating civil registration records for its residents, and the records are also stored in the central state archives.
By law, all children born in Mexico must be registered within six months of birth in the office of the civil registrar of the city or municipality where the birth occurred. When a child is born in a hospital or at home, the physician or midwife who attended the birth must provide a "certificate of live birth," which must be presented by one or both parents at the time of registration along with other required documents such as the parents' birth certificates, a certified copy of the marriage certificate, proof of residence from the municipal office, the child's baptismal certificate, as well as the two witnesses' proof of identity. If a child's birth is not registered within the time allotted by law, the family may be assessed large fines and subject to complex judicial procedures.
Under-registration of births in Mexico mainly affects marginalized sectors of the population, including street children; children from single-parent families in rural areas; indigenous children; children of internally displaced persons or refugees; and the children of migrants, especially unauthorized migrants and minorities like the indigenous and Afro-Mexicans. With respect to unauthorized migrants, while Mexican migration policy now proscribes the denial of birth registration for immigrant children born in Mexico, regardless of status, certain groups of children are still at risk for nonregistration due to inconsistent implementation, lack of documents on the part of the parents, or issues of cost or access to registration. In fact, all of the aforementioned groups face barriers to birth registration such as extreme poverty, social exclusion, ignorance and/or illiteracy, ethnic discrimination, and language barriers. The fact that these groups are also among the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation underscores their need for birth certificates.
To date, there has been no empirical research undertaken to assess the magnitude of under-registration of births in Mexico. However, Be Foundation — a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate under-registration of births in Mexico — has found that the areas with the highest levels of under-registration in Mexico are also those with the highest levels of poverty. The most extreme case of under-registration of births is in Chiapas, where more than half of the population is unregistered. (See Figure 1)
Figure 1: Mexican States with the Lowest Birth Registration Rates
Source: Reporte La Infancia Cuenta en México. 2009. Disaggregated data by the Be Foundation.
Although birth registration in 16 Mexican states requires no fee, regulations and costs vary for the remaining states. Thus, cost can be a major barrier for parents in registering their children, especially in poorer areas. The initial registration fee, for example, may be the equivalent of about US$12, but registration after the initial six-month period can cost an additional US$30 in late fees.
Additionally, parents must cover the hidden costs associated with birth registration, such as taking time off work, paying for travel expenses, or walking hours or even days to the nearest municipal office. These hidden costs disproportionately affect poor and indigenous parents, who often lack birth certificates themselves and are thus unable to register their own children upon arrival to the municipal office. When the time comes to enroll their unregistered children in school, cost again can prevent poor and indigenous parents from obtaining the necessary birth certificates — this time in the form of exorbitant fines for late registration.
While late fees may encourage some families to register their children immediately after birth, in some states like Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca — the poorest region in Mexico, where many indigenous groups are isolated, mostly rural, and poorly provided for by registration services — late registration penalties compound geographic and economic barriers to registration for families who are already struggling to provide for their children.
In Oaxaca, for example, parents who report the birth of the child after six years must pay the municipal registry office US$53 for untimely birth registration, US$9 for a five-year search, and US$5 for a "nonexistent registration certificate" — a paper that documents the child's nonexistence (lack of registration) as a precondition to receiving a birth certificate. In a state where millions of Mexicans live on less than $US4 a day, the total US$67 processing fee, the travel expenses, and the time away from their livelihoods could easily be equivalent to the family's food budget for two weeks.
Cultural factors can also play an important role in evaluating the costs and benefits of birth registration, as some groups may not perceive a benefit to including their child in the civil registry. For example, if expectations of achieving high education or holding a job in the formal labor market are poor and the regard for voting low, parents will be less likely to incur the costs of registering their child.
The Impact of Nonregistration
Children in Mexico who are not registered at birth face a number of consequences to their education, health, and wellbeing.
Many Mexican children do not attend school, and the lack of a birth certificate is among the recognized reasons why. Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution provides that every individual has the right to a free education as long as they can prove citizenship. However, millions of children in Mexico are kept out of school because, without birth certificates, they cannot prove their citizenship.
Unregistered Mexican children are also excluded from Seguro Popular, or Popular Health Insurance. This ambitious program was created in 2003 to provide health insurance for the country's poorest citizens who otherwise would not have access to health care. However, in order to be eligible for coverage under Seguro Popular, birth certificates or, in the case of newborns, live birth certificates are required for each family member. This program thus excludes millions of unregistered children in Mexico, leaving them more vulnerable to chronic illness and preventable diseases.
In addition to diminished education opportunities and increased health risks, many children of internal migrants lack birth registration, making them more vulnerable to abuse, discrimination, recruitment by criminal groups, and child trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation. Moreover, the prosecution of child exploitation and trafficking is made more difficult or even impossible by the lack of proof of age of the victim as established by birth registration.
An estimated of 300,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 migrate every year along with their parents from southern states to northern Mexico to work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. Due to the complexity of late birth registration for internal migrants who were born in a different state, many of their births remain unregistered. In April 2011, the General Director of the Oaxacan Institute for Migrant Affairs (IOAM), Rufino Domínguez, revealed that, of the 60,000 indigenous people of Oaxaca working in the fields of Baja California, roughly 15,000 don't have birth certificates.
An unregistered child is a nonexistent child, and thus is a more attractive target to being recruited by Mexican organized-crime groups who can readily take advantage of their invisibility for their benefit. According to the latest estimates by the Children's Rights Network in Mexico in 2010, approximately 35,000 children as young as 12 years old have joined the ranks of organized criminal organizations involved in kidnapping, the drug trade, human trafficking, migrant smuggling, extortion, and corruption.
There are no official figures on the number of recruited children without birth certificates. According to former Sinaloa State Attorney General Oscar Gonzalez Mendivil, an advisor to Be Foundation in Mexico, "invisible children are the perfect recruits to organized crime as the criminal activities committed by them can go unacknowledged because there are no [identifiable] fingerprints left in crime scenes."
Lack of birth registration — in addition to causing damage and hardship for individuals — is a matter of public safety, as the government has no evidence of unregistered people's existence and thus cannot adequately protect them.
The "Doubly Undocumented": Unregistered Mexicans in the United States
The under-registration of births in Mexico has led to the emergence of a new category of migrants whose births went unregistered: "doubly-undocumented" immigrants in the United States. They are not only noncitizens in the United States, but they are also unable to prove their home-country citizenship before the Mexican consulate.
Juan Carlos, 23, is an unauthorized immigrant from Oaxaca who has lived in Los Angeles for eight years. "In our village, there was no civil registry or hospital," he told Be Foundation. And like many unregistered families in the village, his family could not prove their eligibility for the Mexican Oportunidades program that helps poor families improve their standard living because they had no documents confirming their citizenship. "I needed my birth certificate for everything and I couldn't afford having [to get] one," he said. So, out of desperation, he immigrated illegally to the United States.
Migrants like Juan Carlos attempt to cross from Mexico into the United States — a journey that can be a dangerous one — unaware that their lack of birth registration makes them an even more attractive target for smuggling, human trafficking, and recruitment by drug cartels as there is no official record of their existence. Some disappear without a trace, and for the families back home there is no hope of ever finding them because they can't report the loss of a person that never existed in the eyes of the government.
"I left Oaxaca because there were no opportunities," Juan Carlos said. But in the United States, he faced a double barrier in accessing identification. "Without my birth certificate, I am literally a man without a country," he said. "I came in illegal, but I am too an illegal in Mexico because I do not exist on government records there to prove that I am a Mexican citizen here."
To be a doubly-undocumented immigrant in the United States means having the application of a matrícula consular — a consular identification card issued by the Mexican government to Mexican nationals residing outside of Mexico — denied. While the matrícula consular has no bearing on immigration status in a foreign country, it does establish a person as a Mexican citizen and is accepted by some US states, municipalities, banks, and other businesses as an official form of identification.
There is anecdotal evidence of unauthorized and unregistered Mexican immigrants being excluded from the services of Mexican consulates due to the lack of proof of identity and nationality. Be Foundation conducted a series of interviews in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago on the consequences of being a doubly-undocumented immigrant in the United States. The interviews confirmed that Mexican immigrants who lack a birth certificate find themselves stateless, as they are not recognized by their government or through its consulate offices in the United States.
"We don't keep record of matrícula consular applicants we reject every day for not having a birth certificate, but there are many out there," one Mexican consulate employee told the Be Foundation. "They claim to be Mexican citizens, but they have to bring a proof of it — we are not the civil registry."
In 2009, the Oaxacan Institute for Migrant Affairs (IOAM) and the Civil Registry Office of Oaxaca reported that about 400,000 Oaxacans had been working without birth certificates in the United States for decades.
According to Diana Tellefson, Executive Director at the United Farm Workers' Foundation, "The everyday life of a doubly-undocumented immigrant is not only uncertain and under the constant threat of deportation, but doubly invisible. Without proof of identity, farm workers can't get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)," a number issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to noncitizens without a Social Security number so that they may file tax returns. "It's common to see people come to our office asking for assistance in applying for the ITIN, but if they don't have a birth certificate or a matrícula consular to prove who they are, we can't help them, and they can't establish a record of taxpaying," she added.
"Most importantly," Mrs. Tellefson emphasized, "if there is a comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, the doubly-undocumented immigrants will simply remain outside it because there's no way to prove who they are and their nationality."
For Teresa Vivar, Executive Director of the New Jersey-based immigrant organization Lazos America Unida, the issue of doubly-undocumented immigrants is a problem she knows very well. "In our office we help those who forgot their documents or lost them on the way," she said, "but there are many immigrants from Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla living in New York whom we can't help because they never had a birth certificate."
In order to help unregistered Mexican citizens abroad, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under the auspices of the Institute of Mexicans Abroad (Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior or IME) and the National Registry of Population (RENAPO), launched a pilot program in 2008 under which nearly 5,000 free birth certificates were issued in six months. The pilot program was closed, however, due to high demand and limited resources.
Initiatives to Improve Birth Registration in Mexico
While there is still much to be done to solve the problem of under-registration of births in Mexico, many positive steps have been taken since the federal government implemented the "Plan for Comprehensive Modernization of the Civil Registry" in 1997 in coordination with the country's Civil Registry. Since that time, efforts have been made to improve the quality of the service provided by the Civil Registry in the form of gathering reliable and timely information to accurately certify people's identity and improving the structure of the National Registry of the Population.
Other important advances include:
- The filing of 134.9 million register entries, a 60.6 percent increase from the period from 1930 to date, and the digitization of 90.8 million register entries (40.8 percent of all filed entries).
- The installation of computer equipment in 2,324 of the 5,048 existing registry offices, improving the inscription and certification system in 1,954 offices and the interconnection of 939 national offices.
- The use of a unique form for the certification of acts according to high security standards in 4,093 offices of the 31 federal entities and the Federal District.
Additionally, "Free Untimely Registry Campaigns" and the "Civil Registry Mobile Brigade" have been created to travel to isolated communities that do not have a brick-and-mortar registry service. Alongside this strategy, there are now Itinerant Civil Registry Officials, whose job it is to travel around the whole territory for the registration of people.
And in the fall of 2007, the Mexican Secretary of Health established a universal birth certificate to be used by localities throughout the nation as a tool for the immediate registration of births, a mechanism now used in all 32 federal entities and 2,460 municipalities and that contributes to the gradual reduction of the under-registration rate.
Despite the above improvements, Mexico is far from achieving universal birth registration. There are still large segments of the population that are unaware of the importance of birth registration to the education, health, safety, and general well-being of their children. While many of the new government-led initiatives seek to register births in rural or isolated areas, many children and adults who were not registered at birth will likely remain unregistered until birth certificates are made universally free of charge and more easily obtainable. And doubly-undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States will likely remain stateless for some time, as no immediate solution appears to be on the horizon.
Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) Deputy Arturo Zamora Jiménez has expressed support for reducing or eliminating the under-registration of births in Mexico, and in 2011 he submitted a constitutional amendment to establish "the right to identity and universal, free, and timely birth registration" as well as the State's obligation to provide what is necessary for the exercise of this right. Additionally, Senators Humberto Andrade and Gabriela Ruiz have urged all three levels of government to work together to ameliorate the problem.
Thus, while some support in the government is evident, advocates for universal birth registration assert that there continues to be insufficient political will to adequately address the problem, which has resulted in a lack of necessary legislation, weak enforcement of laws that are on the books, and inadequate coordination and cooperation between the different ministries and sectors that have a stake in birth registration.
Birth registration is a basic human right and a fundamental step towards acquiring citizenship and nationality, as well as realizing other human rights. Registering the birth of a child is not only the duty of the parents, but the responsibility of the government. With 7 percent of its citizens unregistered according to the National Registry of Population and Personal Identification's General Office, Mexico does not have the highest under-registration rate in the world, but it is nonetheless a serious problem.
The lack of an official proof of identity and citizenship means no access to education and health care for children; no opportunities for adults in the formal labor market; no access to microcredit loans; no right to vote; and no human rights. Moreover, the "officially invisible" are more attractive targets for human traffickers, illegal adoption rings, and other organized criminals in Mexico. Thousands of births in Mexico continue to go unregistered each year, and as these disenfranchised people with no official identities make their way across the Mexico-US border, the problem of doubly-undocumented immigrants in the United States will grow larger still.
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Suzanne Duryea & Anal¬a Olgiati & Leslie Stone, 2006. The Under-Registration of Births in Latin America. Working Paper 4443. Inter-American Development Bank, Research Department.
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