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Federal judge rules against state on immigrant paternity case

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Sitting at the crossroads between immigration law, paternity establishment, and the controversy on how the United States handles illegal immigrants, a federal judge in Indianapolis has ordered state health officials to stop denying unmarried immigrant parents without a Social Security number the ability to file an affidavit establishing paternity.

U.S. Judge Tanya Walton Pratt on Thursday granted a preliminary injunction stopping the Indiana State Department of Health from using a new policy that targets those without Social Security numbers, whether they are individuals here on working visas or those with pending immigration statuses. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in November on behalf of a group of families whose immigration status doesn’t allow them to get those numbers and as a result, deprives them of their 14th Amendment rights to have their U.S. born children get child support and related benefits of paternity.

The state used to accept affidavits even if one or both parents' Social Security numbers were missing, but in July that policy changed to require both numbers in order to validate the forms. This case, L.P., et al. v. Commissioner, Indiana State Department of Health, No. 1:10-CV-1309, follows that.

In a hearing Thursday, state register Erin Kellam, who took that job in March 2010, told Judge Pratt that she’d understood state statute to require Social Security numbers and didn’t think it was subject to interpretation.

But Judge Pratt disagreed, pointing to the state department’s “inconsistent” and “perhaps even incoherent” internal policies and how the state argued it needed that information to track a child’s parents in case child support enforcement is needed.

“This reasoning rings hollow,” she wrote. “In effect, the Commissioner is arguing that not establishing paternity at all is somehow preferable to establishing paternity if the affidavit is missing a social security number. Given that the overarching purpose of the law in this area is to establish paternity and enforce child support obligations, this justification defies common sense. Where the choice is between establishing paternity at birth without the parents’ social security numbers and not establishing paternity at all, only the former choice will further the state’s interests. At bottom, the Commissioner’s interpretation erects impenetrable roadblocks to being legitimated via paternity affidavit for Plaintiffs. Regardless of the level of scrutiny employed, Plaintiff’s stand on their Equal Protection Clause claim.”

Judge Pratt disregarded the state’s claim that plaintiffs could turn to the court system to establish paternity, instead of the affidavits.

“However, as the Court well knows, the process of navigating this sometimes maddening world is, to put it charitably, burdensome,” she wrote.

Legitimatizing children is paramount and something that is in the public interest, Judge Pratt said.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office has not yet determined whether it will appeal the ruling to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, but spokesman Bryan Corbin said the AG has 30 days to make that decision.

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