Mexican ID is ticket to US mainstream

With this coveted card, 'undocumented' immigrants move a step closer to legal status

Hugo Godinez Sosa hears his name over the Mexican consulate loudspeaker and pushes through the throng to pick up what is possibly the most valuable item an illegal immigrant can now possess in the US – an official Mexican ID card.

The matricula consular – a nondescript, laminated card that bears a person's name, residence in Mexico, and photo – is fast becoming a ticket out of the shadows and into the American mainstream.

Many public institutions – such as schools, hospitals, social services, law enforcement agencies, and banks and other businesses – around the US are suddenly beginning to accept the cards as legal identification. And, so, that combined with the renewed emphasis on security and documentation in the US in recent months has caused a rush of tens of thousands of both legal and illegal immigrants to Mexican consulates in the US to get their cards.

Inasmuch as the great debate over the rights and status of "undocumented" immigrants hinges on a piece of paper, this document promises to bring a whole class of marginalized people a step closer to legal recognition in the US.

Groups that favor reduced immigration and strict adherence to immigration law, believe the acceptance of these ID cards undermines US law and sets a dangerous precedent.

"States need to be part of the solution to illegal immigration. But accepting these documents makes state agencies part of the problem," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington.

But proponents see it as a security issue – both for the immigrants themselves and for the American public.

"After Sept. 11, when it became clear that there were so many people without any documentation at all, these matriculas started gaining more strength and more significance throughout the United States," says Enrique Buj Flores, the Mexican consul general in Houston.

While his matricula proves that Godinez is a resident of Mexico and nothing more, it suddenly opens doors in the US system. For one thing, the air-conditioning factory worker no longer has to keep his weekly pay in a wad in his pocket because he can now open a bank account with the card. And as of last week, he can use the ID to file a police report in Houston.

The Mexican Consulate here has been pushing hard to get the cards accepted more widely, as have many cities with large pockets of illegal immigrants.

In the past few months, for instance:

• San Francisco became the first city in the country to require hospitals, schools, and other public agencies to accept the ID cards as official documentation.

• In Arizona, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department joined the Phoenix Police Department in accepting the IDs on reports and other police business.

• Bank of America, while not the first to accept the ID for bank accounts, became the most aggressive by setting up a branch at the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana, Calif.

Word of these services is spreading fast. The lines at Mexican consulates across the US are enormous, with wait times of several hours. Houston, for example, has been processing 300 to 400 ID cards a day, while Los Angeles issues about 500 cards a day.

"They are especially important at a time like this when we are asking people to prove their identity," says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza in Washington.

She says the Mexican government, which has made the matriculas a priority since Sept. 11, did a good job of recognizing that fact.

"If we are worried about security, we should want [illegal immigrants] to have contact with civil authorities and with law enforcement and with businesses," she says. "The more we isolate people, the more dangerous a situation we create."

Banks were the first to latch on to the idea, with Wells Fargo leading the way in 23 states. It sees an untapped reservoir of new customers who've traditionally been the least likely to use banking services. MetroBank, a Houston chain, became the first to accept the ID card as proof of identity. While word spread slowly, today its 11 branches are opening about 20 accounts per day on the basis of matricula identification. Since the end of December, more than 600 such accounts have been opened.

Don Wang, the bank's chairman, says many illegal immigrants are forced to cash their checks at changing houses that charge a steep percentage. Then things get even more dangerous.

"After cashing their check, they put their money in their pocket because they have no place safe to put it," he says. "People know that and try to rob them."

Indeed, last year, three Mexicans carrying large amounts of cash were robbed and killed in Austin, Texas. That prompted officials across the state to begin considering ways to make banking possible for this group of immigrants.

Back at the consulate in Houston, Godinez says he's looking forward to setting up his bank account and being able to save money for the first time since he arrived in the US two years ago.

"I needed something to identify myself," he says, dressed in ostrich-skin cowboy boots and a matching belt, "and that's really important right now."

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