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Orange County

Central American Nations Plan IDs for Immigrants

Documentation: Wide acceptance of Mexican program spurs others. The cards help police, but critics say they weaken border laws.

September 07, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Encouraged by widespread acceptance of Mexican consulate-issued identification cards, several Central American nations are planning to offer similar cards to their expatriates in the United States--a move that is fueling hope among undocumented workers of easier lives and fear among critics who see it as a further erosion of national immigration laws.

This week, the Guatemalan government began taking applications for identification cards from its citizens who are living in the United States.

The governments of El Salvador and Honduras said they also plan to issue their own official identification cards once they solve questions about cost and fraud prevention.

Mexican officials say 61 banks and 798 police departments and cities in the United States now accept their matricula consular, which resembles a California driver's license. Some of those institutions say they will do so with the Central American identification cards if they can be assured that tough security standards will apply.

"The card will help me cash my checks," said Guatemalan national Hector Rene, 34, a mechanic who came to Los Angeles without work documents. "Right now, a friend of mine does me a favor to cash the check," Rene said as he waited in line at the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles recently to apply for the card. "With this ID, I can do it myself."

The moves by other governments come as California Gov. Gray Davis weighs whether to sign a bill that would permit illegal aliens to apply for driver's licenses. Without such identification, many California immigrants have been unable to buy cars in their name, obtain insurance, have bank accounts, get telephone service or even rent videos.

Although a consular card does not substitute for a driver's license, it can provide vital proof of identification for local police.

Anti-immigrant groups contend such cards are an attempt to provide quasi-legal status for people in the United States illegally.

Evelyn Miller, a volunteer with the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform, criticized the acceptance of the cards by banks and police agencies as "a mini-amnesty."

"It's one more step through the door," Miller said. "How do we know who these people are? How does this jibe with our concerns about national security?"

Immigration experts say consular identification cards have no effect on a person's immigration status, good or bad.

What they do, however, is provide reliable documentation so that cardholders can use banks, pay taxes and prove their identity to local authorities. They actually are better than passports for U.S. purposes because they list local addresses, experts say.

"Police departments are welcoming this," said James W. Wilkie, chairman of UCLA's program on Mexico and president of an international consortium of researchers on that nation. "They know it gives a person a non-falsifiable document. They can give them a ticket instead of take them into custody. And when they give them a ticket, they know they will appear [in court]."

Without them, Wilkie said, local law enforcement agencies have been thrust into the position of enforcing federal immigration law, a role they aren't trained for and cannot legally perform.

"Without proper identification, a petty crime will take you directly to jail, clogging up the jails and the court system," he said.

About 500,000 consular cards have been issued to Mexican nationals since the program began this year. Wilkie said that in California alone, 40,000 cardholders have opened accounts with Wells Fargo Bank.

Banks and other institutions are hoping for more business when the Central American governments follow suit.

So far, 2,500 Guatemalans have applied for the cards at the consulate on Olympic Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, Consul Fernando Castillo said. He estimated that there are about 600,000 Guatemalans in California and about 1 million in the United States. About 70% of them lack immigration documents.

"We already have a line for them and we have not even publicized that we are offering them," Castillo said of the cards, which will cost $15.

The Mexican government charges $29. The fees pay for administrative costs to issue them as well as the material to make them.

Hector Munoz, 62, a Guatemalan, said he will use the card for convenience.

"If nothing else, it serves as an official proof of my address, and it's easier to carry than a passport," said Munoz, who heard about the cards on Spanish-language television.

The Honduran Embassy in Washington, D.C., said officials in their homeland are finalizing plans before offering the identification cards for the first time.

"We know some Hondurans in the United States who can't get a post office box or check out a library book," embassy spokesman David Hernandez said.

"The identification card would certainly help people. We are just waiting for the official word."

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