WASHINGTON — A congressional advocate of curbs on immigration was criticized Thursday for using an "anti-Hispanic" prop at a news conference to denounce the widening acceptance of Mexican identification cards.
Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.) and several of his colleagues stood beside a large poster to dramatize their concern that more than 1 million IDs issued by Mexican consulates -- and accepted in this country by many local authorities and banks -- are a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The poster depicted a mock consular ID card with a picture of Mexican President Vicente Fox. It was captioned "Office for the Issuance of Illegal Alien ID." It listed Fox's occupation as "El Presidente," and the citizenship of his parents as "Unknown."
"I call it anti-Hispanic. You can quote me on that," said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas). Hinojosa, who said that the ID cards are forgery-resistant and should be honored in this country, held his own improvised news conference following the one that Tancredo held.
The Mexican Embassy also jumped into the fray, issuing a statement decrying what an official termed "little respect" by Tancredo in his use of Fox's image.
"It is lamentable and reprehensible that a member of Congress would insist on resorting to these types of attitudes to make an argument with which we certainly disagree," the embassy said in its statement. "Issuance of consular identification is a right of the government of Mexico."
Tancredo expressed surprise at the criticism and said it was an effort by opponents to shift debate away from the merits of the issue.
"There is nothing anti-Hispanic about having the picture of the Mexican president superimposed on a Mexican ID," Tancredo said in an interview after the news conference.
"It's got nothing to do with race; it's got nothing to do with ethnicity whatsoever," Tancredo added.
He asked what other kind of picture he should have used. "Somebody who looks like a Swede?" Tancredo asked.
The congressman said he would "absolutely" use the same poster again.
"It is there to display what we consider to be a problem," Tancredo said. "The Mexican government is pushing that card for use by their residents who are here illegally. I am protesting the president of Mexico's activities here."
Tancredo called the news conference to announce legislation to try to block Treasury regulations that would allow banks to continue to accept the Mexican IDs from people seeking to open accounts.
"We realize that the banking community looks at illegal aliens and sees dollar signs," Tancredo wrote in a letter to President Bush, signed by 15 other lawmakers, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).
"In addition to facilitating the ability of illegal aliens to stay in the U.S., the Treasury regulations will severely hamper the ability of the government to track money-laundering or accurately identify people who use the cards to open accounts," he said.
Tancredo said efforts to set up meetings to discuss his concerns with White House officials have been unsuccessful to date.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency takes no position on whether banks should accept the Mexican IDs but does have concerns about more than 800 local police departments that recognize the cards as valid identification.
"The problem that we have is that people have been caught with more than one of these cards, with multiple identities," spokesman William Strassberger said.
"It becomes a bigger problem if law enforcement starts accepting it."
Tancredo called it a national security problem.
Los Angeles is among the local governments accepting the cards, which are called matricula consular in Spanish. They resemble a driver's license and bear the cardholder's address in the United States.
Mexican officials said they have been working to improve safeguards for issuance of the identity cards and technology to deter forgeries.
Immigrant advocates say the cards help authorities to know the identity of people living in local communities and prevent abuses against immigrants by allowing them access to the U.S. banking system.
"There is a big difference between immigrants who come to work in our country and terrorists who come to destroy it," Hinojosa said.
The government estimates there are more than 7 million undocumented immigrants in the country, about 70% of them from Mexico.