Beyond The System’s Reach

It probably seemed like a foolproof idea in 1955, and it worked exceptionally well for most of Mark Hernandez Chacon’s 64 years. Except that may not be his name, and he has no idea how old he is because the great idea in 1955 turned out not to be so great in 2017.

All because Eva Hernandez Chacon, who raised him as her son, gave him the birth certificate of her child who died at just 8 days old. When authorities discovered that fact more than 60 years later, it wasn’t long before they came knocking — loudly and early in the morning — at his door.

By comparing databases of death certificates with social security, since technology exists today that was unthinkable back then, it became clear that his Chacon’s “mother” made him her child and gave him the birth certificate of a child who died to use for all purposes. Whoever he was before, he was now Mark Hernandez Chacon. Except Mark Hernandez Chacon died eight days after he was born. Except Mark Hernandez Chacon lived a full life too.

Chacon has lived in Modesto most of his life. He attended Modesto High School, married his wife, Vickie, when they were in their early 20s, raised children, bought a home, worked at the same food plant 45 years and paid his taxes every year, Aguilar said.

“And when he needed to pull on the Social Security Disability at the age of 63, that he paid into all his life, he was shown a death certificate for a newborn who died while in the hospital eight days after being born.”

The investigation appeared to be directed at catching ID theives or social security scammers, and so police came in harder than necessary. But no prosecution followed.

“We rejected the case from the beginning, never filed a criminal complaint because there was no proof of any criminal intent to defraud anyone,” Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office spokesman John Goold told The Bee. “The guy had no record, worked all his life, paid into Social Security under his name, and for all intents and purposes believes his name to be the one his mother told him.”

There may be many questions about why this happened, why a woman who was not Chacon’s natural mother took him in, raised him as her own, gave him her dead child’s identity. Those are interesting questions, though they will likely never be answered. But at the moment, Chacon has a more practical problem.

Chacon is living in limbo: Can’t drive, can’t fly anywhere, can’t draw on the Social Security he paid for 45 years. His only income is one of his pensions, from when he worked for Kraft.

“He is basically a prisoner in his own home because he now has no ID, no drivers’ license — he will not drive without a license,” Aguilar said. “So other than walking across the street to the grocery store or the bank, that’s it, (her father and mother) don’t go anywhere unless we take them.”

The problem isn’t so much that there aren’t ways to fix the bizarre circumstances in which Chacon finds himself. He could obtain a declaratory judgment that his name is Mark Hernandez Chacon, and his birth date is whatever the birth certificate says it is. His social security number is his, since it isn’t anyone else’s, even though it’s premised on a false birth certificate, which could be corrected by ruling, nunc pro tun.

Mostly, this guy did nothing wrong, lived his life as a decent human being and, to the extent there’s a problem now, it’s one of a good idea back when that isn’t so great today. There should be a way to normalize his life, to confirm that living as Mark Hernandez Chacon for at least 64 years is good enough to be accepted, by the law and all governmental bureaucrats, as accurate and true. So what if it wasn’t at the beginning? His 64 years on earth (more or less) earned him legitimacy.

Systems, unfortunately, aren’t built to accommodate non-compliance, even when there’s no impropriety by the person involved. Maybe Chacon was born in Mexico and assumed the identity of an American citizen, but he didn’t know that to be the case, and we don’t know that to be the case now either. Systems work because they presume compliance. You’re born. You get a birth certificate. You use that name and date of birth for all official purposes for the rest of your life, and the system’s work as well as they work.

But people have a nasty habit of coming up with ways to act that the system never anticipates, and for which there is no answer in the system. Mark Hernandez Chacon obviously exists. He’s there, flesh and blood, just as he was there when he went to work every day, married his wife, fathered his children, paid his taxes and went about his life like anyone else.

There is no law that provides a safe harbor for someone like Chacon, where assuming an identity after so many decades is good enough for the government to let you have a driver’s license and get the social security out that you paid in. Even his wife is worried, as she married a fellow who doesn’t legally exist, so what does that do to her marriage? What does that do to the legitimacy of their children?

And while the situation confronting Mark Hernandez Chacon may be viewed as a one-off bizarre case, it would not be at all surprising if, given the situation for a great many undocumented immigrants around the country, this isn’t unusual at all and that we end up with tens of thousands of people for whom the system provides no answers or relief because they lived their lives beyond its reach. They exist in fact, but not in the system, and the system has no way to deal with them.

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