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ID Cards Called Risky

Mexican documents carried by many north of the border are prone to fraud, the FBI says. Mexico voices desire to address U.S. concerns.

June 27, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Mexican identification cards that have eased access to financial and local government services for more than 1 million immigrants in California and elsewhere are prone to fraud and misuse by criminals and possibly terrorists, the FBI told a congressional panel Thursday.

"The Department of Justice and the FBI have concluded that the matricula consular is not a reliable form of identification," said Steven McCraw, assistant director of the FBI's intelligence office. "There are ... major criminal threats posed by the cards and [a] potential terrorist threat."

Resembling a driver's license and displaying the bearer's address in the United States, the cards are issued by Mexican consulates to Mexican citizens, whether or not they are legally in this country.

The cards are accepted as identification by more than 70 U.S. banks, 800 police departments and numerous local governments, including in Los Angeles. In Sacramento, lawmakers are considering legislation that would require acceptance by state agencies.

McCraw's testimony brought into the open a debate within the Bush administration. Several agencies are struggling to craft a government-wide policy on consular IDs, even as half a dozen other countries are considering issuing similar cards for their citizens in the United States.

Currently, consular IDs are not valid for admittance to federal buildings, but the Transportation Security Administration accepts them for air travelers.

Within the Bush administration, the State and Treasury departments have taken a tolerant view, while the FBI is raising strong concerns, and Homeland Security has staked out a middle ground.

Many local law enforcement agencies have embraced the cards, saying acceptance has made it easier to police immigrant communities and has made low-income workers less vulnerable to crime by allowing them to open bank accounts instead of keeping their savings in cash. Thirteen states accept the cards as identification for issuing driver's licenses, usually with additional documentation.

Proponents of reducing immigration have criticized the matriculas as providing an incentive for illegal migration.

"The fact that so many localities have made the decision to accept consular cards for domestic identification purposes, without guidance from the federal government, is a source of concern," said Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. "No background checks are run.... No investigation is undertaken to assess the possible risk that an alien poses to the American people."

Mexican Embassy spokesman Miguel Monterrubio said his government, which has encouraged acceptance of the cards, wants to cooperate with U.S. authorities to resolve any specific concerns about them.

"We have been working hard to improve the process of security under which we give out these consular IDs, precisely with the intention of avoiding forgery," he said.

McCraw said extensive research by the FBI determined that the Mexican IDs can be fraudulently obtained by presenting false documents at a Mexican consulate, or can be forged. "Even the newest version can be easily replicated, despite its security features," he said.

The Mexican government has no central database that can be used to track recipients of the cards, he added. Monterrubio said such a database is under development.

Criminals can use the cards to facilitate money laundering and immigrant smuggling, McCraw said. One smuggler was arrested with seven of the IDs, each with his picture and a different name.

The apprehension of an Iranian man trying to cross the border from Mexico earlier this year, with a consular ID identifying him as a citizen of Mexico, exposed another vulnerability, McCraw added.

There was no indication that the man was a terrorist, he said, but "the ability of foreign nationals to use the matricula consular to create a ... fictitious identity in the United States provides an opportunity for terrorists." They could "move freely within the United States without triggering name-based watch lists that are disseminated to local officials."

Mexican authorities say they are constantly on the lookout for non-Mexicans trying to obtain the consular IDs. "We are a very homogeneous country," said Edgardo Flores Rivas, consul general in Washington. "It would be very difficult for someone to trick us."

McCraw said the Iranian had obtained the Mexican ID with the help of a girlfriend in the United States.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood) urged lawmakers not to move precipitously to cut off acceptance of Mexican IDs.

"Mexico is in the process of substantially strengthening the security of these cards," he said. "As long as the identification truly reflects who the bearer is, [security agencies] don't have a problem with the card."

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