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Mexico Prods State on Driver’s Licenses

Times Staff Writer

President Vicente Fox called Thursday for the restoration of a California law that would allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, saying it would benefit more than 1 million Mexicans who are “working people ... decent people.”

The Legislature overturned the law, yielding to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s complaint that it lacked strict enough background and identity checks to ensure that people could not obtain licenses under false pretenses, then flash them as ID to enter federal buildings or board airplanes.

The blocking of the license law, which would have taken effect Jan. 1, provoked an outcry in Mexico. Governors of 21 Mexican states have appealed to authorities in California to reconsider the decision.

Fox weighed in on the issue Thursday during his annual visit to Mexico’s northern border to greet hundreds of thousands of migrants -- legal and otherwise -- who are coming home from the United States to spend the holidays with family.

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“We will be fighting tooth and nail to convince the state of California to once again issue licenses to all Mexican migrants, independent of their legal status,” he told migrants in Nuevo Laredo. California should do this, he said, “because they are working people, because they are decent people, because they are honest people.”

Presidential spokesman Agustin Gutierrez Canet said the issue was a high priority for Fox, who lobbied for similar legislation in Arizona and Texas last month and wants to visit California next year.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks stalled Fox’s effort to negotiate a deal with the Bush administration to expand guest worker programs for Mexicans and legalize some of the millions of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States.

Since then, however, Mexico’s 45 consulates in the United States have worked quietly to issue more than 1.5 million matriculas consulares -- fingerprinted photo ID cards -- to illegal Mexican immigrants.

Mexican government lobbying has persuaded dozens of police departments, government offices and banks across the country to accept the cards as valid identification.

Fourteen U.S. states accept the cards as a basis for issuing driver’s licenses, as California would have under the law that was repealed.

Schwarzenegger won Democrats’ support for the repeal by indicating that he would accept a new version of the bill if it provided for more background checks and other safeguards.

Mexican officials hope to influence the drafting of a new bill by convincing Schwarzenegger that the matriculas consulares are virtually forgery-proof and should be accepted as a valid ID statewide.

Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez has said Mexico will send a delegation to Sacramento in January to meet with the governor’s staff.

“The IDs have all the safety elements of the most secure documents in the United States and Mexico,” Derbez told reporters this month, adding that Mexico conducts background checks to verify that none of the migrants has a criminal record or poses a security threat. “I am convinced that once we have demonstrated this, the concerns will be resolved.”


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