Union Tribune

February 1, 2003

Debate intensifies over the matricula ID card from Mexico


and Leonel Sanchez

WASHINGTON – Mexico's consul general in Detroit made the 172-mile drive across Michigan five times in just two weeks last month. Each time his mission was the same: to persuade authorities in the small city of Holland to accept Mexico's matricula consular as an ID card for Mexican immigrants.

Holland's City Council postponed its vote after a contentious debate, deciding that it needed more information about the document that is issued by the 47 Mexican consulates in the United States.

But Consul General Miguel Antonio Meza Estrada wasn't discouraged.

Once the council understands how secure and useful the card is, he's sure it will give the matricula, as it is commonly known, a big thumbs up.

The debate over whether the matricula should be recognized as a valid form of identification in the United States has heated up in recent weeks.

Immigration-control advocates and some lawmakers argue that the matricula's main function is to make it easier for illegal immigrants to stay in the United States. They also question the security of the Mexican ID card and are trying to curtail its growing acceptance.

Nationwide, Mexican consulates issued 1 million matriculas last year, including 30,000 in San Diego County.

Though the card doesn't grant legal status, it does make it easier for illegal immigrants to open bank accounts, board airplanes, identify themselves to police or enter buildings that require IDs.

Seventy-four banks and 800 police departments recognize matriculas. Police departments throughout San Diego County and the Sheriff's Department recognize the card.

So do seven cities, – Oceanside, Del Mar, Escondido, La Mesa, Santee, National City and Poway – according to Alberto Lozano, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate in San Diego.

The consulate has tried, but failed, to persuade the city of San Diego and San Diego County to recognize the matricula, Lozano said.

Critics charge that the Mexican government, which introduced the high-tech matricula last year to replace the low-tech card, is attempting to get what it hasn't been able to win from the Bush administration and Congress: de facto amnesty for the estimated 4.8 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States.

"It is a means to subvert U.S. immigration laws," said George Grayson, a professor at William & Mary and an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations. "It's the first link in a daisy chain toward getting quasi-citizenship" for illegal immigrants.

Grayson said Mexico is forging other links by seeking driver's licenses and in-state tuition for immigrants.

California already allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities, and legislation has been introduced again to allow undocumented workers to obtain driver's licenses.

Grayson says the Bush administration is avoiding the matricula debate.

"They have been as silent as the Sphinx on this," Grayson said. "It's a way for them to ingratiate themselves with Mexico and with Hispanic American leaders. And it doesn't antagonize the Republican base because they're not pushing for a bill for amnesty."

The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, said in a study released last week that the U.S. government has watched and given consent to widespread use of the matricula at banks.

Some Republicans are spearheading efforts to halt recognition of the matricula, however.

In a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell last week, Republican House members led by Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo protested Mexico's efforts to lobby local authorities to accept the matricula.

"While the issuance of national identification cards is nothing new, providing them with the express purpose of evading the U.S. law is something else entirely," said the letter signed by 12 Republicans.

Tancredo has also introduced legislation to prohibit federal agencies from accepting the matricula.

The General Services Administration recently stopped a pilot program in San Francisco that had allowed people to use the matricula as an ID card to enter a federal building.

Mexican authorities reject the argument that the matricula is a step toward legalization, or that legalization is their ultimate goal.

"That is a fallacy," said Meza, the Detroit consul general. "The great majority of the Mexicans here don't want to stay in the U.S. They want to earn some dollars and go home. In the meantime, they need an ID to get a telephone, to open a back account, to identify themselves in the hospital."

Meza, noting that Mexican consulates have been issuing matriculas for many years, said the new card was a response to heightened U.S. security after the 2001 terrorist attacks. "We are using the highest technology available," he said.

"It can also be useful for police," said Rudolfo Figueroa, Mexico's consul general in San Diego. "This way they know who they are dealing with."

Like Meza, Figueroa is trying to persuade law enforcement agencies and local governments to accept the matricula, which he likens to a less expensive Mexican passport.

Carlos Félix, an official in the Mexican Embassy in Washington, acknowledged that birth certificates can be counterfeited "in Mexico or any other country."

But he said consular personnel work closely with document registries in Mexico when they have any doubt about the legitimacy of a birth certificate.

1950s sweep
The immigration debate has come a long way from Operation Wetback, the 1950s government sweep that rounded up thousands of illegal Mexican immigrants and sent them home. Now a large-scale deportation is widely regarded as both inhumane and politically impossible.

Robert Leiken, director of the immigration and national security program at the Nixon Center in Washington, said the matricula controversy is forcing an important debate on this side of the border. The INS recently upgraded its estimate of the number of illegal immigrants from 6.5 million to 8 million.

"It is forcing us to address the issue of whether we are having a kind of quiet, creeping legalization," Leiken said. "It is forcing the issue of what are we going to do with this very large group of people."

In the 1980s, Congress enacted an amnesty that legalized nearly 3 million people, but employer sanctions remained lax and illegal immigration continued. Mexico and immigration advocates have pushed without success for another mass legalization program since the late 1990s.

David Martin, former general counsel of the INS, says the matricula debate highlights the nation's ambivalence about illegal immigrants.

"Most Americans harbor contradictory feelings," Martin said. "If they're talking about the nice immigrant family down the street, they might think it's no big deal if there is some sort of amnesty. But if there's a terrorist act by foreigners, or a crime committed by an undocumented alien, they'll want a crackdown."

'Get real'
Mexican President Vicente Fox has called on the United States to "get real" about Mexican immigrants, suggesting it's hypocritical not to legalize a large group of people who have become important to the U.S. economy. Under his leadership, immigrants have become a pressing national concern in Mexico. "It is up to us . . . to support them, help with them, be with them," Fox said in one of his recent weekly radio programs.

The matricula has given many Mexicans some peace of mind.

In San Diego, M. Partida, a 24-year-old construction worker from the Mexican state of Nayarit, decided to lay out $28 for a matricula after a police officer stopped him one evening as he walked home from work. When he couldn't produce any identification, the officer suggested he get a photo ID.

Partida, who asked not to be fully identified because he is living in the country illegally, took his birth certificate, a computer-generated Mexican voter registration card containing his photograph, and a utility bill showing his National City address to the Mexican consulate on India Street.

Ten minutes later, he walked out with his matricula, which has a digital photo, a hologram seal of Mexico and is good for five years. The card also contains information that can be seen through special decoders that the consulates have provided to U.S. police departments.

Partida plans to open a bank account with his matricula and carry it with him in case he gets stopped by police again. What he wants next is a driver's license, so he can drive to work instead of relying on public transportation.