Alecia Faith Pennington describes herself as a Texan, born and raised. But in a video that went viral after she posted it on YouTube last month, Pennington said her parents never obtained a birth certificate or other basic documentation of her life, leaving her with “nothing to prove my identity” — or her U.S. citizenship. Because she was home-schooled, she also has no school records. That means, the 19-year-old said, that she’s unable to get a job, go to college or obtain a driver’s licence.
To make things worse, Pennington said in the February video, her parents have refused to sign an affidavit that would help her prove her place of birth, leaving her with few legal options. On Tuesday, a Texas legislator introduced a bill to try to change that.
The bill, inspired by Pennington’s campaign, would address some of the problems she says she encountered when she set out to prove her own citizenship. It would allow individuals to petition for a delayed birth certificate in the county where they live, rather than in the county in which they were born. It would also make it a misdemeanor for a parent to refuse to sign an affidavit to help their child obtain a delayed birth certificate.
“This bill is designed to make it easier for people like Faith to get a delayed birth certificate,” David Glenn, legislative director for Texas Rep. Marsha Farney (R), said in an e-mail. “If this measure had been in place today, it would have been easier for Faith to have her case heard in the county court and find representation during those court proceedings. It also would have required her parents to sign the affidavit or face jail time.”
Farney’s bill is the latest development in the conversation Pennington sparked about the rare, isolating experience of those who have U.S. citizenship but lack adequate proof. That conversation has implications everywhere, from the home-schooling and home-birth movements of which Pennington’s family is a part to an ongoing border debate about how the U.S.-born children of immigrants prove their citizenship.
Currently, Texans without birth certificates must apply for a delayed birth certificate by filing a petition in the county in which they were born. Pennington did that — but, she says, a judge told her that what proof she had of her existence wasn’t enough to move forward. That proof, Pennington says, included a baptism certificate, an affidavit from her grandmother and a doctor’s statement from when Pennington was about 9 years old.
Feeling that she had no other options, Pennington says she made the video that brought the national spotlight to her story. About a week after her video was posted, Pennington, her aunt, and her grandmother met with Farney, Glenn said. “At the meeting, we learned a lot about Faith’s family and how she had managed to stay ‘off the grid’ for so long,” Glenn said, adding that the conversation inspired Farney’s office to work on the new legislation.
It can be difficult to understand how someone like Pennington could end up in the situation she describes. Alecia, who also goes by Faith (her middle name), is one of nine children, all home-schooled by her parents, Lisa and James. Both are prominent members of the state’s home-schooling community; in 2010, the Penningtons were the Texas Homeschool Coalition Association’s family of the year. And Lisa Pennington is a well-known Christian home-schooling mommy blogger, writing at the Pennington Point and video-blogging on YouTube. She also uses her blogging and social media platforms to sell essential oils.
In several online responses to Alecia Pennington’s video, her parents have said their daughter’s story is misleading. On Facebook, Lisa Pennington called the video “untrue.” She later posted (then removed) a YouTube video questioning her daughter’s story. “She says in the video that she does not have a birth certificate or the documentation that she needs to get a Social Security number or documentation for the things that she needs in her life. And she says in the video that we have refused and we want you to know that is 100% not true,” Lisa said, according to a transcript of the video.
Despite their statements contradicting some aspects of their daughter’s plea, the parents have failed to produce documentation that contradicts Alecia’s central claim, that she does not have a birth certificate or a Social Security number — something Alecia says she has confirmed with the state’s office of vital records.
Lisa said in her video that “to our knowledge there was a birth certificate filed.” She went on to say: “We do not know what information was put on it and we do not have any copies of that.” She and her husband are willing to help their daughter obtain a delayed birth certificate, she said, despite Alecia’s assertion that they refused to help her. “We didn’t know about any of that until the video came out,” she added.
In an e-mail to the Daily Beast, James Pennington reiterated that “to the best of our knowledge, the midwife applied for a birth certificate.” But, he added, he and his wife have “religious objection to obtaining Social Security numbers for our children.” James has publicly offered to help sign any paperwork Alecia needs to obtain documentation of her citizenship, something Alecia later confirmed on Facebook.
Both Alecia and her parents also agree on another major aspect of this story: In late September, Alecia left her parents’ home, with the help of her maternal grandparents. In a now-removed blog post, Lisa Pennington said that her relationship with her daughter was severed. “We also learned that she has been telling exaggerated stories about what is going on inside our home to a godless woman who has been giving her foolish counsel and encouraging her to deceive us and get out,” she wrote of her daughter.
After posting her video, Alecia has generally declined requests for comment. In a February e-mail to The Post, Pennington noted that she has obtained legal representation and said her lawyers recommend she “hold off on the media until I meet with the judges.” In an early March follow-up, she wrote: “Progress is good! We are working hard, and hope to have this figured out soon!”
James Pennington, a tax attorney, did not respond to requests to comment from The Post.
In some parts of the home-schooling diaspora, there’s a term for what Alecia says she’s going through: “identification abuse.” Ryan Stollar, executive director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out, said his organization found that about 3.5 percent of home school alumni have experienced it, based on a 2014 survey of more than 3,700 Christian home-schooling alumni. It’s rare, but not unheard of.
Stollar wrote in an e-mail to The Post that many alumni have responded with empathy to Alecia Pennington’s story, “because many have experienced — or know someone who has experienced — the same situation.”
Stollar added that his group’s survey found that women were disproportionately the victims of withheld documentation, and that “the most common reason for parents withholding an adult child’s identification documents is control: control of the adult child and that adult child’s future decisions.”
Parents, Stollar wrote, “have an obligation to their children to make sure they have the necessary identification documents. To not do so is neglect, and we are glad that Representative Farney is making an effort to counter such neglect.”
The Home School Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit that advocates for the parental rights of home-schooling families, has also weighed in on Pennington’s case. Spokesman Michael Farris Jr. said in an e-mail to The Post that “we do believe that children have the right to a birth certificate,” adding that HSLDA needed to “study the bill in more detail before we can comment.”
In an earlier Facebook post about Pennington’s story, the organization wrote: “We understand that conflicts between parents and their adult children can be complicated, and that we likely do not know all of the facts in Alecia’s situation. But we do support homeschool graduates’ right to have an identity, get a job, and fully participate in society. In over 30 years of defending homeschoolers, we have never seen allegations like the ones in this situation.” HSLDA added that it had reached out to Pennington to offer its assistance.
As the case continues to keep the attention of the home-schooling community, it’s also potentially of some interest to another group of Texans: American-born citizens of immigrants who, like Pennington, were born at home to a midwife and can run into trouble trying to prove their citizenship.
But Rachel E. Rosenbloom, an associate professor at Northeastern University School of Law, said Farney’s bill wouldn’t really have much of an impact on the specific obstacles facing those citizens. In short, that’s because many children of immigrants who run into difficulty proving their citizenship already have a delayed birth certificate recognized by the state of Texas. The issue, she said, lies mainly with federal agencies. The consequences range from denied passports to wrongful deportation, Rosenbloom added.
Rosenbloom said she’s “never encountered a case where people lacked the proof to get a birth certificate.” Instead, the deportation cases she’s familiar with involve individuals who have birth certificates, sometimes delayed, “and then have that birth certificate considered to be fraudulent.”
For the children of immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants, Rosenbloom said, a birth certificate filed by a midwife even months after birth can be a problem. “If there’s any delay, it certainly increases the scrutiny,” she added. The way in which federal agencies question the documentation of Mexican citizens in southern Texas was the subject of a 2008 lawsuit.
Still, Rosenbloom hopes Pennington’s case could help to draw more attention to the larger problem of Americans who find their citizenship questioned. “To me it’s great anytime something’s drawing attention to this,” she said. “It really takes somebody’s personal story to show what it means to be undocumented.”