At El Rincon Vaquero trading post here in West Columbia, S.C., votive candles compete with cowboy hats and jars of dark mole for shelf space. The colorful shop is a slice of Mexico in the middle of a rundown neighborhood. But one day this month, El Rincon Vaquero became, through a bit of diplomatic magic, an actual outpost of Mexico.
In an aggressive - some say subversive - new gambit, the Mexican government is sending its deputies through the American countryside, setting up shop in strip malls and schools, and handing out new Mexican ID cards called matricula consulars for $29.
To the Mexicans and many of their US supporters, it's a way to get driver's licenses and other benefits. Some say it even helps US officials by keeping track of illegal immigrants. For local governments, the cards are a stopgap way to deal with growing Mexican communities.
But to critics, they're an attempt to legitimize illegal immigrants' presence, conferring the advantages of citizenship. It is, they say, a new blight on an immigration policy as tattered as an old piñata.
"This is like a ... creeping legalization," says Robert Leiken, director of the Immigration and National Security Program at Washington's Nixon Center.
On a recent Saturday, over 1,000 Mexicans arrive in busloads from across South Carolina, crowding into the back room at the El Rincon Vaquero, clutching paperwork and Spanish-language car magazines. Several hundred are turned away: There just aren't enough forms to go around.
Still, "At least for a day, this is Mexican territory," says Irma Santana, a Hispanic outreach worker here.
The scene unfolds weekly from Illinois to Georgia, as schools and strip malls morph into consular safehouses where Mexicans can be "normalized" - if not naturalized - into the US. And despite the six patrol cars here in West Columbia, drawn by neighbors' complaints about the crowd, it's widely assumed that the INS is stretched too thin to attempt a raid.
"We're safe here, or else nobody would come," says Edren Saenz, a contractor from Greenville, S.C., who's teaching himself English by watching TV and skimming a dictionary nightly.
The mobile Mexican consul is so new that some INS officials haven't heard of it. Launched in 1999, it's picked up speed since 9/11. While State Department officials are dubious that the consul can technically establish Mexican soil in random US locations, nobody doubts the cards' legality: To the INS, handing them out is the right of any government.
"When it comes to the matricula cards, we don't have a dog in that fight," says Dan Kane, an INS spokesman in Washington.
Some insist it's the cards' open acceptance that's enabling the "subversion" of US law. A growing number of banks, for instance, welcome matriculas as a way to establish checking accounts - which makes it easy for relatives back in Mexico to access accounts through ATMs.
"If US interests weren't accepting these cards, nobody would be lining up to get them," says Steven Camarato, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
While legalization is not the Mexican consul's stated aim, some say it's the implicit goal. Plans for amnesty for several million US illegals - which Mexico President Vicente Fox had lobbied for before 9/11 - don't seem politically feasible at the moment. But many see matriculas as the next best thing. The mobile consulate is part of Mr. Fox's bold attempt to help Mexicans in the US - and tap into a lobbying network that's quietly changing attitudes toward illegal immigrants.
Though they contribute less than two percent to the GDP, illegal Mexicans prop up parts of the American economy. Many farmers, contractors, factory owners, and homeowners wink at their services, and matricula cards are evidence that such attitudes are spilling into American officialdom.
"The basic thing ... is an attempt by the Mexican government to try to be useful to its citizens in the United States, but in particular it's an attempt to be useful to those in the US illegally," says Mr. Camarato.
For Deputy Consul Carlos Isunza, the roadshow is a legal way to serve Mexicans - and one that has taken on new aspects since 9/11. It's also for safety: With cards in hand, Mexicans feel more comfortable about reporting crimes. "This is not about immigration," he says. "This is about the safety of our citizens." And states that allow Mexicans with matriculas to get drivers' licenses, for instance, may improve road safety.
But while few people see illegal Mexicans as a threat to national security, the ease with which they move through American society is a concern, says Mr. Leiken, author of "The Melting Border," a book about US-Mexican immigration.
"There is a security problem associated with having a large population of illegal immigrants, in that it creates a market for fraudulent documents," he says. "And we saw the result of that on 9/11, when some of the terrorists obtained their papers through Salvadoran illegals."
What's more, critics fear that the Mexican government's new practices in the US will open the door for other governments to take a larger role in the lives of expatriates living here illegally. Right now, the Guatemalan government is preparing its own version of the matricula consular.
"Next we may see the Chinese and Egyptian governments doing the same thing," says Mr. Camarato. "If you're a patsy, people beat up on you, and that's what's happening right now to the US."