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Storm Swirls Around Mexican ID Card Use

Times Staff Writer

Branded by critics as a threat to national security and a backdoor amnesty for illegal immigrants, Mexican identification cards have become a bellwether issue in a reemerging debate over immigration from Mexico.

Critics in Congress -- mainly Republicans -- are trying to use the federal government’s clout to curb what they see as an alarming trend toward acceptance of the cards by local and state governments, banks and some U.S. agencies.

The identification cards, issued by Mexican consulates here, resemble a driver’s license and are known in Spanish as matriculas. They carry the bearer’s picture and address in the United States.

“The only person who has a need for this document is someone who has no legal right to be in this country,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who has proposed legislation that would bar acceptance of the cards for federal purposes.

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His attempt to restrict Mexican Ids is not the only such move. Under pressure from House Republicans, the Treasury Department has taken the unusual step of seeking additional public input on published rules that allow banks to accept the cards from customers. The deadline for comments is today, and a Treasury Department decision is expected soon.

In another restrictive move, the House this month passed an amendment that would require U.S. authorities to regulate how foreign consulates issue identification documents -- including matriculas -- to their citizens. The State Department objected, warning that other countries could see it as interference in their affairs. Voting in favor were 203 Republicans and 23 Democrats.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, sensing a political opportunity, blasted the amendment as an “anti-Hispanic measure.”

Responded Gallegly: “When everything else fails, play the race card.” He said his concern is with all foreign IDs, not just ones issued by Mexico.

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The escalating rhetoric comes as business groups and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are floating proposals that would create a new guest-worker program with a route for illegal immigrants already here to eventually become lawful residents.

For undocumented workers, the ID cards have perhaps been the next best thing, said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at Claremont College. The cards have helped them gain access to the U.S. banking system, allowing them to wire money home at low rates, establish credit and even buy homes, he said.

Withdrawing such privileges could prompt an outcry that would hamper chances for broader agreements on immigration. There are an estimated 5 million or more undocumented immigrants from Mexico in the U.S., and many have American family members.

“Republicans are vulnerable from the past to being seen as anti-immigrant,” Pachon said. “All of the Spanish-speaking that goes on by President Bush gets undone by news that the matricula gets turned down or some anti-immigrant measure passes in the Congress.”

Critics of Mexican IDs say they pose a security risk because, despite holograms and other security enhancements, they are susceptible to forgery. In recent congressional testimony, an FBI official raised the specter of terrorists using matriculas to conceal their true identities.

Critics also point out that although about 1.5 million Mexican ID cards have been issued in this country, there is no central database of cardholders, with each consulate maintaining its own registry. The Mexican government says it is working to remedy that.

To obtain a matricula, a Mexican citizen must present proof of an address in the United States and either a Mexican passport or birth certificate with a valid Mexican photo ID, such as a voter registration card. The consular ID costs $28.

It remains unclear whether fraud problems are more prevalent with Mexican IDs than with U.S. driver’s licenses or other forms of identification. “All have different vulnerabilities,” acknowledged Steven McCraw, an FBI intelligence official who testified to Congress about problems with matriculas.

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Two recent cases cited on Capitol Hill as evidence that document forgery rings are exploiting Mexican IDs turned out to involve other forms of U.S. and Mexican papers, according to law enforcement officials in Washington state and Illinois.

Critics “are holding the matriculas to standards that many state driver’s licenses and other domestic governmental-issued IDs couldn’t meet,” said Sheila Bair, a University of Massachusetts business professor who has served as the assistant Treasury secretary for banks in the current administration. “The tie to terrorism is a stretch.”

Bair’s comments reflect a split within the administration. The FBI and the Justice Department have taken a hard line on foreign IDs, while the Treasury and State departments are more tolerant. Homeland Security occupies a middle ground.

Some immigration officials say the concerns are exaggerated, since the cards have no legal value as immigration documents. T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing Border Patrol agents, agrees.

“From our perspective, it’s much ado about nothing, because the card is worthless,” Bonner said. “If you give that to an immigration officer and it’s the only thing you’ve got, you can take the card with you when they send you back to Mexico.”

Bonner said he is not sure that acceptance of the cards encourages illegal immigration, adding that he thinks the availability of U.S. jobs is a more powerful incentive.

The banking industry has not experienced any widespread fraud problems with accounts opened by Mexican ID holders, said John Byrne, a lawyer for the American Bankers Assn. “We’re thinking this is a valuable customer base,” he said.

Wells Fargo has opened an estimated 80,000 accounts for holders of the Mexican ID since the bank began accepting them less than two years ago, said spokeswoman Mary Trigg. The bank requires customers to present another ID besides the matricula as well as a Social Security number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number issued by the IRS.

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“We did our due diligence on the card to see what the safety and security features were,” Trigg said. “Then we made our decision.”

Treasury officials say they believe banks should be able to make their own determination on foreign IDs. U.S. security is enhanced when immigrants’ money is in the banking system, where it can be routinely monitored, they contend. But it’s unclear whether the current policy will remain after the comment period on the banking rules closes today.

Yet getting a matricula is no guarantee of acceptance in American society, said David Diaz of West Los Angeles. Diaz, who was born in the U.S., recently helped his 81-year-old aunt get a card so she could put her $600 life savings in a bank. She has lived in the Los Angeles area as an undocumented immigrant for more than 40 years and still works as a baby-sitter.

But the bank also asked for a Social Security number, which she lacked, so Diaz is keeping her cash in his bank account.

“I keep track of it so at least she doesn’t have to carry it around in a plastic bag,” Diaz said. He said he is glad his aunt at least has a photo ID with her address on it.

“The only thing [undocumented immigrants] have going for them is the matricula,” Diaz said. “If they cut that out, I think it might backfire.”


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