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Mexico’s quick divorces

Domestic Relations: The Perils of Mexican Divorce

Endless publicity had made it abundantly plain: Actor Richard Burton had been in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for six months making a new movie, Night of the Iguana. Nor was it any secret that his wife Sybil had felt no urge to join him there. But last week Sybil Burton traveled to Mexico by proxy. A local lawyer appeared for her in a State of Jalisco court, and she divorced Burton for «cruelty.» He will marry Liz Taylor «as soon as possible—the sooner the better,» after she sheds Eddie Fisher. For Liz, 31, Dick will be No. 5.The Burtons thus became one of the 10,000 or so non-Mexican couples who each year consummate a Mexican divorce in the not-quite-polygamous marriage ritual that has been called «serial monogamy.» Mexican divorces are relatively inexpensive and remarkably swift.

Divorce-law experts insist that the situation is not all that bad, that a correctly handled Mexican divorce is perfectly valid in most of the 50 states. But if someone contests it later, defending a Mexican quickie-cheapie can prove long-drawn-out, costly and uncertain.

Instant Residence. At the start all seems wondrously easy. The average wife who hates her average husband and has an average competent lawyer, can get on a plane to El Paso, say, and be back home the next day—divorced. From El Paso she crosses the border to Juarez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. She makes her way past bars and tacky tourist shops to the Municipal Palace, where she meets a Mexican lawyer by prearrangement, signs the great registration ledger of the clerk of the court, pays one dollar, and gets a slip of paper certifying that she is indeed in Juárez. In Most cases it is not even necessary for either party to appear. Instead a proxy from authorizes a Mexican attorney to appear in court and request the divorce on behalf of the absent client.

With the paper she acquires instant residence, the chief attraction of Mexican divorces. (Nevada and Idaho require all of six weeks; Alabama, once an easy-divorce state, now requires a full year’s residence.) It takes only another few minutes for the judge to grant a divorce; by Chihuahua law, his court now has jurisdiction over the visitor. All further steps will be handled by the Mexican lawyer. The new divorcee gets her elaborate Spanish decree with its impressive ribbons and seals. Legal costs can amount to as little as $500, or as much as the traffic will bear.

The practice until recently has been to arrange for two Mexican lawyers in Juárez, one with power of attorney for the absent spouse. The judge also incorporates into the divorce the Stateside agreement in which husband and wife settled property, alimony, and custody of children.

Most Mexican divorces have the consent of both husband and wife, and few people back out later. But when third parties—disinherited children, later spouses, pension fund administrators—have an interest in the case, they may have grounds for successful court attacks.

U.S.-Born Children Of Migrants Lose Rights In Mexico

MALINALCO, Mexico — As a cold drizzle washed over this town of narrow cobblestone streets in the forested highlands of central Mexico, mothers waiting outside the colonial-era cultural center wrapped wool blankets around the infants snuggled in their arms. Other parents tightened plastic bags around folders filled with U.S. passports and birth certificates from California, Ohio and Texas.

One by one, the parents filed inside, sat down before a Mexican government worker and told stories of lives that had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border twice. First, they crossed illegally into the United States for work, found jobs, and had children. Then, they were caught and deported, or left on their own as the work dried up with the U.S. economic slump. Now they are back in Mexico with children who are American citizens by virtue of being born on U.S. soil.

Because of the byzantine rules of Mexican and U.S. bureaucracies, tens of thousands of those children without Mexican citizenship now find themselves without access to basic services in Mexico – unable to officially register in school or sign up for health care at public hospitals and clinics that give free check-ups and medicines.

At issue is a Mexican government requirement that any official document from another country be certified inside that country with a seal known as an «apostille,» then be translated by a certified, and often expensive, translator in Mexico.

It’s a growing problem in Mexico as hundreds of thousands return home because of the sluggish U.S. job market and a record number of deportations. Illegal migration of Mexicans to the U.S. is at its lowest level in decades, with more Mexicans now leaving the United States than entering it each year.

More than 300,000 U.S.-born children have been brought to Mexico since 2005, out of a total of 1.4 million people who moved back from the U.S. during that period, according to the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center.

The number of U.S.-citizen children living in Mexico with at least one Mexican parent reached 500,000 in 2011, according to one demographic study.

Many of the Mexican parents of U.S. children were not aware of Mexico’s paperwork requirement before they came back, so now tens of thousands are struggling to get their children’s documents to the United States to be certified, and then returned to Mexico to be officially translated.

They get little help from the Mexican government, but a lucky few get aid from groups like the Corner Project, a nonprofit organization for migrant families in Malinalco. It arranged for state government workers to travel to the town recently to meet with families and then send packages of documents to different U.S. offices. Returnees living in small towns without government offices otherwise have to make long journeys to deal with officials.

«The government doesn’t care about what happens to the people who are coming back,» said Maria del Rosario Leyva, who came back with her two U.S.-born children, a 3-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, from Santa Ana, California, last year after their father was deported.

She and other returnees have gone to schools and to education offices seeking to enroll their children. Some were sent to Malinalco’s records office, which suggested they hire a lawyer.

Rogelio Hernandez Sanchez is another parent who is back. He lost his job as a construction worker in Oakland, California, last year and decided to bring his family to Mexico in November. He was told that not only was he missing official seals on the birth certificates of his two U.S.-born children, but that the documents were no good because they were issued by a health department rather than a government records office, as is done in Mexico.

«They won’t give me my kid’s grades. I won’t be able to take them to a doctor,» Hernandez said.

Responding to questions from The Associated Press, Mexico’s health officials said in a statement that they offer a temporary care plan for U.S.-born children, but families must certify the youngsters’ documents within 90 days to continue receiving health care. An education department spokesman said each Mexican state, and sometimes individual school administrators, can temporarily waive requirements and let children into school despite the lack of official paperwork.

Many parents don’t understand what administrators and clerks tell them. Official procedures are often confusing even for college-educated Mexicans. Misconceptions are widespread: Hernandez said he’d heard from other families that if he didn’t get the children’s documents stamped, U.S. officials could take the youngsters from him, even in Mexico.

«The mothers have come to us for help after multiple frustrations,» said Ellen Calmus, director of the Corner Project. «I’ve literally had a series of mothers in tears coming to the office.»

Her group arranged for two state clerks to help about a dozen families at the recent session in Malinalco, and both Leyva and Hernandez were able to send their children’s birth certificates to get the official stamps in California. They were given a special permit to show schools that the paperwork is in progress.

Leyva’s husband was among 46,000 people deported from the United States in the first half of 2011 who had U.S.-born children. He worked as a chef at a steakhouse in Santa Ana before he was arrested and pleaded guilty to drunken driving and was deported.

After nearly 17 years in the U.S. and with two small children, Leyva worried she would get caught, too, so she left their rented townhome in California. Her older daughter in her mid-20s stayed, but Leyva brought back her 19-year-old son. Both immigrated illegally as children.

A majority of migrants’ American-born children stay in the U.S. with relatives, or are taken into state foster care after their parents are arrested for crimes. Demographers say only about 10 to 15 percent of the U.S.-born youngsters are taken to Mexico.

«These are children who are kind of stateless in both countries,» said Hirokazu Yoshikawa, academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of «Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children.»

«Each generation is undocumented in one country,» he said.

In Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that the U.S. government worries about U.S.-born offspring of migrants. «Where are the children? What’s going on with the children?» she said in an interview with The Arizona Republic newspaper.

The U.S.-born children who are brought back to Mexico have birth certificates and American passports, so they don’t need anything else to prove they have citizen rights if they should go back to the U.S.

Leyva says her U.S.-citizen children will not stay in Mexico beyond childhood.

Her eyes moistened as she told of how they often ask when they will return to the United States.

«When they are old enough, they will leave,» she said. «Their future is not here. Their children will have papers; the children of their children will also have papers. The problems will end.»Mexico Trapped Children

Mexican and Living in US, But Existing Nowhere

She was born in Mexico and lives in the United States, but Laura Rocio Ordoñez does not officially exist in any country.

She can’t open a bank account or get married. She is invisible for both governments. Ordoñez, 40, not only lives illegally in the United States but also lacks Mexican identification documents.

It’s unclear how many immigrants living illegally in the United States fall into that category, but it’s estimated that one in seven Mexicans lacks proof of birth. The numbers are high enough that Mexican officials recently traveled to New York to try help dozens of immigrants get IDs.

Mexican immigrants living illegally in the United States are in a far worse situation if they lack Mexican credentials.

For example, some banks accept consular identification cards and passports to open accounts. Immigrants with IDs from home also can obtain taxpayer identification numbers that allow them to pay taxes in the United States and obtain credit and mortgages. New York City public schools accept consular ID cards and similar documentation to enter buildings for meetings with teachers, although people who have no identification at all can be escorted inside.

Ordoñez, who was born in Oaxaca and came to the United States illegally years ago, is not included in Mexico’s birth registry. She thinks her parents did not register her, and she did not solve the problem while she lived in her home country.

She said she can study English but has no hope of obtaining a GED diploma because of her lack of ID.

Officials at Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography and the National Registry of Population and Personal Identification said they have no data on how many Mexicans are not included in the registry, but lack of identity is a common problem in poor and remote towns of states like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, Veracruz and Hidalgo, where people have sometimes to walk long distances to find a civil registry office.
«I feel helplessness, frustration,» said Ordoñez, who works at a small grocery store in Brooklyn. «This has affected me greatly.»

Officials at Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography and the National Registry of Population and Personal Identification said they have no data on how many Mexicans are not included in the registry, but lack of identity is a common problem in poor and remote towns of states like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, Veracruz and Hidalgo, where people have sometimes to walk long distances to find a civil registry office.

About 23 percent of Oaxaca’s population is not included in the born registry, according to the state’s civil registry office. Oscar Ortiz Reyes, executive director of Mexico’s BE Foundation Right to Identity, said that in 2008 «invisible» Mexicans represented 14 percent of the country’s population, according to data from the Inter-American Development Bank.

It’s hard to determine how many of those people are now in the United States, given the underground nature of illegal immigration.

New York City’s Mexican consul, Carlos Sada, estimates there could be hundreds in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut who are not included in his country’s registry or who have errors on their birth certificates. He added that there are «considerable figures» of people in the same situation across the U.S.

Oaxaca’s civil registry officials recently traveled to New York and spent a week in the city working to give an identity to dozens of immigrants.

Civil registry officials also have traveled to Los Angeles on the same mission, and officials from the states of Puebla and Guerrero will probably come to New York soon, said Mexico’s consulate in the city.

Haydee Reyes Soto, director of Oaxaca’s civil registry, said Mexicans with no U.S. or Mexican identification are «twice as vulnerable.»

Soto said dramatic scenarios can unfold, with immigrants being arrested but with no place to be deported to. If they have children in the United States, they can’t offer them Mexican citizenship because they don’t have it themselves. That can result in the separation of families.

Lack of identity is a serious problem as states approve their own laws to fight illegal immigration and local police departments work with federal agencies to identify immigrants for possible deportation, said Leticia Alanis, president of La Union, a Brooklyn nonprofit that helps immigrants.

«You need identification for everything,» she said. «If a policeman stops you, you need identification. … We all should have something that says who we are.»

Groups like Make the Road New York and El Centro del Inmigrante, on Staten Island, offer ID cards to their members, which sometimes helps immigrants without Mexican identification.

«We ask them to send a letter to themselves and when they receive it, we ask them to bring it to us. Like that, we can check their address,» said Gonzalo Mercado, director of El Centro.

Ester Bautista can hardly read or write because she was forced to abandon school in Mexico when she was 10. The Mexican immigrant, who is now 37, said her school asked her for an ID. She did not have any.

«My life would have been better if I had been registered,» she said. «I feel unprotected in many aspects.»

Bautista, who was born in the small Oaxaca town of Zimatlan de Lazaro Cardenas, said her father was murdered when she was only 2 months old. Her mother was alone and poor. She had no means to travel to another town where the civil registry office was located.

Bautista has never been able to marry her boyfriend, Jaime García. The couple has a 12-year-old son, born in New Jersey. After living in the United States for 13 years, Bautista obtained her birth certificate last month when the Oaxacan officials visited New York.

When they handed it to her, she smiled timidly.

«It is like being born again,» Garcia said. «She needed an identity. The first thing we are going to do is get married.»

Bautista called her mother to announce the good news.

«She feels so proud of me,» she said. «She always felt bad … because she never registered me.»Walking Streets