Thursday, September 18, 2003


The Treasury Department said yesterday that it will leave in place rules that allow financial institutions to accept Mexican identification cards, called Matricula Consular, which often are used by undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts.

The decision, which extends to all foreign-issued identification, is considered a victory for immigration and Hispanic groups that have protested efforts to prohibit use of the identification cards. Financial institutions, too, had opposed any change in the rule.

The federal government and other critics say the cards could be interpreted as de facto amnesty for illegal aliens.

The cards, moreover, can be counterfeited easily and pose a risk to homeland security, opponents note.

For fear of the IDs being fraudulently issued, the General Services Administration in January decided to prevent persons from using the cards to enter federal facilities. The FBI has said the cards are an unreliable form of identification.

The cards are issued by Mexico’s consulates to its citizens living abroad and show the date of birth, a current photograph and the address of the card holder. Many of the cards have been issued to Mexicans in the United States, including those here illegally.

Card holders have used them to open bank accounts, turn on utilities, check out library books, get driver’s licenses or other basic services in some communities and states.

Earlier this month, officials in Virginia said they would not accept the consular cards as proof of legal residence when issuing driver’s licenses.

But the Montgomery County Council earlier this week unanimously voted to allow immigrants to use the cards to get social services from county departments.

Treasury decided that under the existing rules, financial institutions bear the risk of failing to have an effective policy on what types of identification to accept. That acts as incentive for the institutions to adopt policies that will stem fraud, but still gives them flexibility to accept identification most used in their communities.

“When an institution decides to accept a particular form of identification, they must assess risks associated with that document and take whatever reasonable steps may be required to minimize that risk,” the department said in a statement.

It still would hold financial institutions accountable for the effectiveness of their customer identification programs. And it will notify financial institutions of problems with specific identification documents that are accepted.

The department’s decision comes after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told the Associated Press that banks and communities that accept the card for identification do so “at their peril” because the cards are not fraud-proof.

Although Mexico is improving card security, the FBI reported this summer that the cards remain vulnerable to fraud.

But Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, said the Treasury decision is the right one because “there never was a valid argument to deny” acceptance of the cards.

“This is a triple win for rational thought. This is a win for the matricula, a win for the economy and a win for our close ally Mexico,” said Mr. Bartlett, whose organization represents the nation’s 100 largest financial services companies.

Comment was not available from the Mexican Embassy in Washington. Many Washington offices were closed yesterday because of Hurricane Isabel.

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