By Nick Braune
I remember visiting the Social Security office three months ago in McAllen, Texas. Entering the waiting room with its “take a number” method, I was told by a guard that I was not allowed to bring in my coffee, which I just bought at Whataburger. I waited outside, finished my coffee and then went in to sit in the rows of chairs facing the same direction to wait my turn.
Although I hate visiting those sorts of offices, with the chilly formality and bureaucratic language that isn’t always as clear as they think, my question was simple and it wasn’t very crowded that day. I was out fairly quickly. But not everyone’s visit is the same.
Carlos Munoz was having a difficult time satisfying the functionaries at the McAllen Social Security office: “Every time I went they told me I needed something different.” The situation got so bad, he took legal action.
Here is a quote from a press release I received:
“Monday, December 12, 2011 –Today, the South Texas Civil Rights Project (STCRP) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a U.S. citizen who could never get a Social Security number in McAllen, Texas. Carlos Munoz, born in Pharr, Texas, filed an application and produced numerous documents, including his Texas birth certificate, but only received the runaround from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Time after time he was told by the SSA staff to come back with a never-ending and always different set of documents.”
I spoke to STCRP’s attorney Elliott Tucker. Tucker, one of whose parents is an immigrant, told me that the case “tugged at [his] heart strings” when he heard how Munoz had been bounced back and forth, never receiving a clear answer.
Mr. Munoz is part of a group which Tucker calls a “lost generation.” There are a number of people born here in Texas where their families were working but who returned to Mexico with their parents after NAFTA started. (In the 1990s NAFTA created a pre-planned factory buildup in border towns like Reynosa, which the U.S. encouraged.) So Mr. Munoz lived in Mexico for some time as a child and attended school there, but as he grew older he returned to the U.S. Although the McAllen office is not disputing his citizenship, not saying he did anything wrong, it never issues him a Social Security card.
The press release quotes Munoz: “It was like they were making up the rules on the spot. How can I support my family without a Social Security card?”
Tucker says that SSA suddenly decides to send people like his client to obtain paperwork from their old school in Reynosa or suddenly tells them they need a drivers license as the next step to getting a Social Security card — while knowing in advance that they won’t get drivers licenses without Social Security cards. SSA’s decisions often seem random.
I asked Tucker if there is any hope. He says he is examining a similar federal case which was almost won. Tucker will stress the constitutional guarantee of due process, because a government agency cannot randomly refuse something as important as a Social Security card. And he is demanding that a procedure be set up for a reasoned appeal process, which SSA seems to fear. What SSA says at each level must be made clear, regular and checkable.
[This piece first appeared in “Reflection and Change,” Mid-Valley Town Crier, 12-23-11]