- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

A Mexican identification card used chiefly by illegal immigrants is being accepted by a growing number of U.S. banks and cities.

Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, stressed that holders of the card, known as the "matricula consular," should not confuse it for a residency permit. But he said no law or regulation prevents banks or cities from using it.

"It's strictly an identification document," he said. "If banks choose to accept it, that does not make it an immigration matter."

For more than a century, Mexican consulates around the world have offered the card to Mexican citizens. But its use in the United States has picked up steam during the past year as U.S. banks such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citibank, eager to manage the $60 billion earned by undocumented workers each year, have begun accepting it for checking accounts.

Elected officials in major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, have followed by accepting the ID for use in city business such as borrowing books from libraries, entering municipal buildings and minor scrapes with the police.

"This program has gone completely beyond my expectations," said Martha Lara, the Mexican consul general in Los Angeles who has lobbied U.S. officials for its acceptance.

Every month in Los Angeles alone, the consulate churns out 15,000 cards. The 47 other Mexican consulates in the United States, especially those close to the border, hand out thousands more.

The Mexican Consulate in Washington, where most Hispanics hail from Central and South America, issues about 450 cards each month, said spokesman Miguel Monterrubio.

The card is a straightforward ID that includes a person's photograph and address in the United States. During the past year, Mexican authorities have phased in additional security features, such as a hologram, to thwart forgeries.

Cardholders are widely recognized to be in the United States illegally, as official residence would give them access to American-issued identification, such as a driver's license.

A broad coalition supports the use of the cards. Police forces are happy to have a reliable ID for noncitizens. Hispanic civil rights groups seeking better treatment for Mexicans have cheered it. The Mexican government, mindful of the close attention being paid to immigrants since the September 11 terrorist attacks, has pushed the card as a way to protect its citizens.

A few groups who favor tighter immigration laws have criticized it.

"It makes life easier for illegal immigrants, and that compromises law enforcement and security," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "It's a creeping amnesty that incorporates illegal aliens into our institutions."

The roughly 3 million illegal immigrants in the United States earn about $60 billion each year, making them a rich potential market for American banks, according to the Manuel Orozco of the Inter-America Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

"One of our key target markets is Hispanics," said Ken Preston, a spokesman for Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, which has honored the card since December. "They have traditionally been underserved."

In addition to accepting the matricula, Bank of America has invested $40 million in a Spanish-language advertising campaign. It also offers a service that allows customers to send money to Mexico.

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which in November became the first bank in the nation to accept the ID, has used the card to open 35,000 checking accounts that now hold about $50 million in deposits.

The card, with a taxpayer identification number an Internal Revenue Service number available to noncitizens is enough to open an account. The fact that most of the applicants are in the United States illegally does not matter.

"We do not question the legal status of any of our customers," said Mary Trigg, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman.

The impetus for using the card came from law enforcement, especially the police department in Austin, Texas. Nearly half of all robberies in Austin in 2000 were committed against undocumented Mexican workers, including four robbery-homicides.

"This population was getting robbed [because] they cannot put their money in a bank," Assistant Police Chief Rudy Landeros said.

In 2001, after discussions that included Wells Fargo, Austin city officials and Mexican consular authorities, the bank agreed to accept the card at area branches. Convinced that the card helped reduce crime, Austin began training police officers to recognize and accept the ID.

Chief Landeros conceded that most of the Mexicans who carry the card are in the United States illegally but said the reduction in robberies made the card an invaluable tool.

"We are focused on public safety, not immigration," he said. "Our job is to protect and serve, regardless of immigration status."

Following the Austin program, Mexican officials, including Mrs. Lara, went to work in Southern California to win acceptance for the card.

Wells Fargo also took a closer look at how the Mexican government issues the ID and what it does to prevent forgery.

"We had extensive talks with the Mexican consulate on the security issues," Ms. Trigg said. "The card has all the things it needs to be a primary identification."

On Nov. 7, Wells Fargo announced that the card would be valid ID at all bank locations in 23 states, triggering a wave of interest by other financial services companies.

"Three hours later, faxes were rolling into my office [from banks] saying they would accept it too," Mrs. Lara said.

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