SAN BENITO, Tex. — For hundreds of Mexican women, some here legally and some not, the cardboard stork outside Maria Elena Tafoya's birthing room signals the doorway to a brighter future.
Inside, on a small bed with a rubber sheet, under a portrait of the Virgin Mary, their children enter the world on U.S. soil--a minor distinction in geographic terms but one that carries big advantages economically. Tafoya, 57, serves both as midwife and de facto immigration judge, conferring U.S. citizenship at the moment of delivery, no questions asked.
"The people who come to me look at this as an investment," said Tafoya, the founder and former president of the Rio Grande Valley midwives' association. "Not to get government benefits but to give their children more opportunities in the future: to work, to study, to be somebody important."
It is a testament to the uniquely symbiotic culture of the border that midwives, parteras , perform more than 10% of all births in Texas' southernmost corner, compared with just 1.7% statewide. But the business of some Rio Grande midwives, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, has gone beyond just exploiting loopholes in federal immigration law.
In the largest birth-certificate scam ever uncovered by the INS, authorities have charged Tafoya and at least four other midwives with doctoring paperwork to make it appear as though they had delivered babies in the United States when the infants were born in Mexico. As a result, officials say, more than 1,500 children, most of them living in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, are in possession of illicit Texas birth certificates.
The parents, who allegedly paid $800 to $1,200 for the documents, have not been targeted for prosecution. Most of the midwives, in exchange for cooperating with investigators, also will avoid prison terms at their sentencing next month. What authorities want most is simply to identify all of the fraudulent records to prevent the children from applying for Social Security cards or other benefits.
"We just want to keep those kids out of the system," said INS Special Agent Gilbert Trevino, adding that at least another half-dozen midwives remain under investigation. "I'm looking at the future. I'm thinking about the taxpayers."
Although some fraud had long been suspected, the scale of the Rio Grande document scam has cast a spotlight on the lax regulation of midwifery in Texas, where there are few provisions to prevent an unscrupulous partera from lying about the details of a birth.
The case also underscores some of the ambiguous aspects of U.S. immigration law, which allows Mexican residents to obtain temporary permits for shopping or family visits, provided they don't venture more than 25 miles beyond the border. Despite the millions of dollars spent every year to keep illegal immigrants out, it's possible for a pregnant woman in Matamoros to take a taxi across the international bridge and legally give birth in Texas to a U.S. citizen.
Meanwhile, the government foots the hospital bill for those births if the mother is indigent, regardless of her immigration status. That infuriates nobody here more than the midwives, who complain that their patients are being lured away by the generosity of U.S. taxpayers.
"Yes, it's contradictory, but then so is almost everything about the laws that regulate the border," said Tony Zavaleta, an expert on folk medicine and dean of the liberal arts college at the University of Texas at Brownsville. "You've got to remember, we're joined at the hip down here--we're Siamese twins--with the same economic bloodlines and genealogical bloodlines and cultural bloodlines. If you sever one side, it makes both sides bleed."
In California, despite the proximity to Mexico, there is no comparable culture of midwifery. Prompted by concerns over health and safety, lawmakers pulled the plug on the profession some four decades ago, agreeing only last year to begin setting up a licensing process.
In the meantime, a small unregulated network of midwives has managed to stay in business, but birth records show they delivered just 629 babies in 1993, the last year for which figures are available.
By comparison, 5,530 babies were delivered that year by licensed Texas midwives, most of them clustered along the banks of the Rio Grande, where they assist women living on both sides of the border. More than 40% of those babies, in fact, were born in just two border counties, Hidalgo and Cameron, where parteras dot the landscape unlike anywhere else.
Almost all of them operate out of their homes, usually humble little bungalows in working-class neighborhoods with one room set aside for births, somewhere between the bathroom and kitchen. Most have a hand-painted sign out front, often of a stork hoisting a newborn in its bill, which serves as a kind of universal beacon.