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Georgia County Votes to Accept Mexico ID Card

Policy: Despite concerns on illegal immigration, DeKalb officials say that the document is better than nothing. Without it, migrants can't open a bank account.


DECATUR, Ga. — After a debate peppered with talk of homeland security and immigration, DeKalb County on Tuesday became the first county in the South to accept as official identification a document issued by the Mexican government.

The seven members of the county's Board of Commissioners wrangled over whether accepting a Mexican identification card amounted to an endorsement of illegal immigration or jeopardized border security. But in the end, practical concerns won out as commissioners said that it was better that immigrants carry a foreign-issued ID than none at all, as is often the case. The vote was 6 to 1.

"We want to make sure that everyone carries proper, reliable identification," said Commissioner Burrell Ellis, who argued that accepting the Mexican card, known as a matricula consular, was a "good, common-sense measure."

The identification card is issued by Mexico for its nationals living on foreign soil. It bears a photograph and biographical data, including the holder's local address, place of birth and a signature. A number of municipalities in California and in other states with high numbers of Mexican migrants, such as Texas, Arizona and Illinois, already recognize the card as a form of identification in matters ranging from attending public hearings and borrowing library books to opening bank accounts and dealing with police.

The tamper-resistant card can serve as identification for migrants who lack a U.S. driver's license or who do not have papers to live legally in the United States.

Officials in the city of Forest Park, outside Atlanta, also recently agreed to accept the matricula consular as identification.

But DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer said Tuesday that recognizing the cards lent a "veneer of respectability" to holders on U.S. soil unlawfully. As the nation prepared to commemorate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Boyer said, the county would be wrong to accept the validity of a document over which it had no control.

"If DeKalb County gets into the business of recognizing consulate ID cards, it is, in effect, opening its own foreign relations office, something explicitly limited to the federal government," she said. "We would then turn homeland security over to a foreign government."

Vernon Jones, the county's chief executive officer, said invoking the attacks was "disrespectful" to the Sept. 11 victims. "This has nothing to do with" the illegal immigration issue.

Recognition of the card in Georgia is fresh evidence of how the rapidly growing Latino population has altered life in a region where there had been few immigrants from Mexico and Latin America just a decade ago. The South is now home to several metropolitan areas--including Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro-Winston Salem, N.C., and Greenville, S.C.--where immigration propelled the growth of Latino communities at the fastest rates in the country during the 1990s. Georgia is now home to more than 435,000 Latinos, quadruple the number in 1990.

In DeKalb County, which includes a sliver of Atlanta and is the state's second most-populous county with 665,000 residents, nearly 1 resident in 12 is now Latino. Slightly more than half of DeKalb County's residents are black and about a third are white. The diversity of the county's population, including immigrants from Japan, China, Taiwan, the West Indians, East Africa and the Balkans, can be heard in its schools, where enrollees speak more than 60 languages.

"Our county is evolving to become more of a melting pot. We have all kinds of nationalities and political persuasions, economic realities. It's really a melting pot," Commissioner Henry C. Johnson Jr. said after the vote. "We have to first recognize that our county has changed and take our heads out of the sand."

As migrants--mostly from Mexico--flocked to jobs in agriculture, construction, restaurants and hotels throughout the South, local officials unaccustomed to greeting immigrants now suddenly face cultural differences and language barriers along with the usual concerns of filling potholes and issuing building permits. Some police officers and firefighters are learning Spanish. Cities are adding Mexican festivals to their calendars. Crime issues have changed and schools need more Spanish-speaking teachers.

"Five or six years ago, you could look at our Hispanic population and say that if we had 100 Hispanics in our community, that was it. Within the last two to three years, we've had a real explosion here. It creates a whole different understanding and a whole different way of doing business," said Chuck Hall, mayor of Forest Park, where about 2,000 of the city's 21,500 residents are Latino.

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