INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana cannot deny paternity documents for children born in the U.S. just because their parents are illegal immigrants and don't have Social Security numbers, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by parents who said a state policy requiring the numbers violates their children's rights under the 14th Amendment, which recognizes the children as U.S. citizens. Pratt issued a preliminary injunction barring the policy, which began last July.
"These newborn children are American citizens, and we have to remember that," Pratt said.
Under the new policy, state health officials require that paternity affidavits filed by unmarried parents contain both parents' Social Security numbers or be sent back to county health offices unrecorded. Without the affidavits, which establish legal paternity, a child's mother or father isn't legally recognized as the child's parent.
Denying parents the ability to establish legal paternity amounts to discrimination against their children, the judge said. Without paternity rights, children lose out on child support, inheritance, visitation and other benefits, she said.
"This case isn't about the parents," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ken Falk, who represented two sets of parents who were granted class action status. "It's about the children."
State health registrar Lisa Erin Kellam testified that she established the policy based on her interpretation of state and federal law governing the documents.
But Falk said state officials had accepted paternity affidavits for years without Social Security numbers from those who couldn't provide them. And, he said, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had advised states that the numbers weren't necessary.
The paternity affidavits were intended to make it easier to establish paternity, not harder, he said.
"The state has taken a provision that protects children and erected a barrier that injures children," Falk said.
Deputy attorney general Adam Clay, who represented the state health agency, argued that the language of state and federal laws clearly required the Social Security numbers and it was "somewhat illogical to have a minimum requirement that isn't really a minimum requirement."
But he acknowledged that the health agency has no way of verifying whether the Social Security numbers submitted on paternity affidavits are accurate.
Clay also said requiring Social Security numbers made it easier to enforce child support obligations by making an absent parent simpler to find.
But without establishing paternity in the first place, it was impossible to collect any child support, Pratt said.
The judge also said that state policy was inconsistent because it required both parents to provide Social Security numbers on paternity affidavits, but it didn't require men to provide them for a state registry that helps unmarried fathers establish their rights.
"It just doesn't make any sense," Pratt said.
She also discounted state arguments that parents could go to court to file paternity, noting that the process was complicated and would cost money. "It's not an easy process," she said.
Ken Severson, a spokesman for the Indiana State Department of Health, said the agency would comply with the ruling.
Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said state attorneys will confer with the health agency on whether to appeal. The state has 30 days to file a notice with the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Corbin said it was important to note that the state had no intent to discriminate against anyone with the policy.
"There was not discrimination by the state," he said. "We were trying to comply with both the state and federal law."
Falk said he hopes the state decides not to contest the injunction and allow it to become permanent.
Corbin noted that the dispute was bound to be controversial.
"Anytime you're dealing with children, it's an emotional issue," he said. "Anytime you're dealing with immigration, it's an emotional issue."
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