- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

MEXICO CITY President Vicente Fox's dream of an imminent migration deal with President Bush now seems about as quixotic, as one Mexican put it, as searching for the Holy Grail.

But that hasn't stopped Mr. Fox's government from pressing ahead with plans to convince Americans beyond the Beltway that Mexican workers are already as much a part of the U.S. economy as investment capital and open markets.

Central to this campaign is more than 800,000 slick, pocket-sized identification cards the Mexican government has issued this year to eager immigrants legal and illegal through Mexican consulates all over the United States.

The cards list the holder's birth date, place of birth, U.S. address and encoded information to prevent fraudulent duplication. The documents are being used in some places to open U.S. bank accounts or gain access to public libraries. They're used, too, to register marriages and births, and even, in 13 states, to obtain driver's licenses.

In the past year, Mexican consular officials have been aggressively convincing police departments, banks and public agencies in the United States that accepting the cards makes sense because Mexican workers are embedded in the U.S. economy and in many communities.

"We all know that there will be no migration agreement soon. But we must look for alternatives so that Mexicans that are already contributing to the North American economy can live in a better manner," said Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez, Mexico City-based general director of protection and consular affairs, which supervises the ID project for Mexico's Foreign Ministry.

The ministry recently announced that more than 800 U.S. police departments, 15 cities, 20 counties in various states and 13 states accept the cards, known as "matricula," as valid ID.

At least 66 U.S. banking institutions have also agreed to accept the cards, resulting in tens of thousands of new bank accounts not just in immigrant-heavy California and Texas, but also in Georgia and other Southern states, where the Mexican immigrant population is growing at a faster rate than anywhere else.

In 2000, a rash of robberies of Mexican immigrants carrying cash in Austin, Texas, inspired Mexico to promote an improved form of identification. Officials turned the previous version of the card into a high-tech ID that's more fraud-proof than many state drivers' licenses.

Austin police supported the effort to improve the card so banks would start honoring it. Police worked closely with Wells Fargo Bank, which pioneered acceptance of the cards.

Wells Fargo estimates that it has opened at least 50,000 accounts in 23 states since November 2001 thanks to the new ID.

In Georgia, where the Mexican consulate in Atlanta serves four Southern states, a push is also under way to persuade immigrants in the Southeast to open accounts and transfer money to Mexico through banks.

Bank of America has been central to that effort. So far, the bank estimates, matriculas have been used to open 17 percent of its new SafeSend accounts, which let immigrants transfer money home to relatives through ATMs at comparatively low rates. Wells Fargo offers a similar service.

Mexico recognizes the economic clout of its immigrants in the United States. Last year, they sent an estimated $10 billion back to Mexico, about as much as Mexico earns in tourism. Families survive on this money, build homes and start businesses with it.

Fox is still pushing for an accord that would legalize some of the estimated 3.8 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States and open the door for more temporary work visas.

Fox's dream appears stalled if not dead, however, because President Bush, who once regarded an accord as a priority, has focused his attention on terrorism, and now, Iraq.

But in Mexico, migration still commands headlines.

On Nov. 5, Mexico's Reforma newspaper published an interview with U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who said Mr. Bush still supports a migration accord and that a deal would have to be negotiated next year, before the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign heats up, or "the process would get complicated."

Mr. Fox's government remains hopeful, but it has also decided that it must work in a grass-roots fashion, through Mexico's consulates, to build U.S. regional and business support, and public acknowledgment of the need for immigrant labor.

The matricula is part of that strategy. And it also offers better protection to Mexicans at a time when foreigners are regarded with suspicion in the United States, Mr. Rodriguez said.

"It's necessary to push the need for an agreement at all levels," he added. "There are [U.S.] states where it is evident that without the participation of foreign workers the economies would collapse."

"A little lobbying, pushing from mayors up to governors, then going through congressional representatives and senators is worth the effort," Mr. Rodriguez said. "If there is a negotiation [for an accord] between the two executive offices, it must end up going to Congress. So why not do this in reverse? We work first with the states, with the Congress and the senators, and then it will be easier to push forward an agreement."

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