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Mexico’s ID Makes Major Gains in U.S.

Times Staff Writers

Despite opposition from groups that oppose illegal immigration, the matricula consular -- an identification card issued by the Mexican government -- has become increasingly common and widely used in California.

The number issued statewide has jumped from just under 190,000 five years ago to nearly 360,000 last year. Nationwide, the the number has gone from 528,000 to more than 4.7 million last year, according to the Mexican government.

Other countries, primarily in Latin America, are taking note of the matricula’s success. Argentina, El Salvador and Honduras either distribute comparable cards or plan to this fall. Colombia began a pilot program in late 2004.

Resembling driver’s licenses, the Mexican photo identification cards are a boon to U.S. businesses. They allow companies such as Sprint, Costco and Wells Fargo to capture the buying power of an eager and growing group of consumers: illegal immigrants.

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The cards can be used to establish credit, open bank accounts, buy insurance and apply for government services.

“There was a need in the Latino community,” Wells Fargo spokeswoman Mary Trigg said of her company’s decision in 2001 to accept the card. “And we saw a market there.”

Margarita Hernandez, an illegal immigrant who lives in Orange County, said she used the ID card to open a Wells Fargo checking account and establish a line of credit that allowed her to buy a cellphone, a 1997 Dodge Caravan, a 56-inch flat-screen television, living room and dining room sets and a $1,000 gold watch.

“It’s all because I have this,” said Hernandez, proudly displaying a laminated card with her photo set against the colors of the Mexican flag.

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To get a card, which is good for five years, an applicant must pay $27 and produce an original birth certificate, a photo ID from Mexico (such as a voter card), and provide evidence of U.S. residency (such as a water or gas bill). The card lists the bearer’s U.S. address, whether the person is here legally or not.

The matricula’s growing acceptance by U.S. businesses is both a measure of how entrenched illegal immigrants are becoming in American society and of how eagerly the marketplace is courting them. It also highlights the contradiction between immigration laws, which forbid the presence of undocumented workers, and immigration reality, which encourages them to spend their paychecks here.

Activists who oppose issuing U.S. driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants criticize businesses and local governments for accepting the identification cards. Nationally, protesters have targeted bank branches and Mexican consulates.

It “is a de facto amnesty,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors tighter immigration controls. “It’s a way of incorporating illegals into our society. It allows [the immigrant] to embed himself in our institutions.”

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Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, also disapproves of those who accept the card. “They are making money off of illegal activity,” he said.

The FBI says the cards are vulnerable to fraud and forgery, and immigration authorities caution that they do not protect immigrants from arrest and deportation.

But businesses and government officials say the cards are a practical necessity.

Several local governments across the state -- including Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Ventura counties -- accept the identification cards as valid identification for county services and programs. The cards can be used for admittance to a hospital, to obtain a federal tax identification number and to borrow books from libraries.

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In Ventura County, Supervisor John K. Flynn said local government offices, including the coroner’s and sheriff’s departments, need a way to identify residents, whether or not they are here legally.

“Realistically,” he said, “they are here.”

James Ballentine, outreach director for the American Bankers Assn., said banks aren’t in the business of classifying customers by immigration status.

“There’s a lot of mattress money out there,” he said. “Banks want to tell these people they have options.”

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Insurance companies are also taking the card to be able to serve the growing Latino population.

“They were wage earners who had money ... a great source of potential customers,” said Michael Chee, spokesman for Blue Cross, which began accepting the matricula card last year.

Now South American countries are following suit.

“Our people asked for an ID that can help them in everyday life,” said Carlos Valencia, Colombian vice consul in Los Angeles. “We are seeing how it works.”

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College of William & Mary professor George Grayson, who specializes in Mexican affairs, said President Bush is not opposing use of the cards because he does not want to alienate Latino voters and legislators.

“There has been sort of the wink and the nod,” he said.

Wells Fargo Bank began accepting the card in November 2001 at the request of police in Austin, Texas, who wanted to encourage immigrants to keep their money safe, said spokeswoman Trigg. Many were storing large amounts in cash.

In 2003, Wells Fargo opened a branch in a Pacoima strip mall, becoming just the second bank in a city full of immigrants dependent on check-cashing outlets and money order stores. The bank trained a team of immigrant women whom they called comadres, which loosely translates as “sisters,” to give financial education classes at potluck dinners in private homes and at local churches.

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“We wanted to tell people that they could be empowered by saving the money they were spending on check-cashing,” said comadre Eva Torres, 49.

“We came here illegally too. We got ahead. We want to help others.”

Meanwhile, the branch manager, Steven Contreraz, 26, decided to open the bank on Sundays after noticing that the strip mall’s parking lot was fullest then. He hired bilingual employees.

Now, more than 2,800 households have accounts. Some started at $100 and grew to $20,000 a few months later, Contreraz said. Ruben Beltran, Mexico’s consul general in Los Angeles, and 45 Mexican consuls around the United States are trying to make it easier to get matricula cards, processing applications on Saturdays at mobile consulates in outlying areas. Those gatherings have become community events that draw nonprofit organizations and banks offering free items to those who open accounts.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In circulation

Since 2000, 4,735,927 matriculas -- official Mexican photo identification cards -- have been issued in the United States. Cities with the largest number of cardholders:

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Approximate number of matriculas issued since 2000

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*--* Chicago 606,000 Los Angeles 555,000 Dallas 312,000 Santa Ana 230,000 San Francisco 213,000 Atlanta 205,000 Jose 174,000 Phoenix 163,000

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Source: Mexico Foreign Ministry


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