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Mexican Migrants Win an ID Victory

Matriculas cards can be accepted at banks, the Treasury Dept. decides. A GOP lawmaker says it won't stop efforts to restrict their use.

September 19, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Banks can continue to accept identification cards issued by Mexican consulates from customers wishing to open new accounts, the Treasury Department said Thursday in a move seen as a victory for undocumented immigrants.

"This allows immigrants the ability to live normally, to open bank accounts and conduct business," said Kevin Appleby, director of the migration office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "We have a large population of undocumented immigrants who are working and contributing to their communities, and businesses and local governments understand this."

Mexican consulates have issued about 1.5 million of the cards -- known as matriculas -- to their citizens living in this country.

The cards carry the bearer's address in the United States, and many local governments and banks accept them as valid identification.

Gov. Gray Davis recently signed legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain California drivers' licenses. The immigrants may use matriculas to establish identity. While the cards do not grant any immigration benefits, they do help make daily life easier for undocumented immigrants.

Critics say the cards are prone to fraud and amount to a backdoor amnesty for illegal immigrants.

A spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said the Treasury decision will not deter lawmakers from seeking curbs on the widening acceptance of the cards.

In May, Sensenbrenner had asked the Treasury Department to review its policy of allowing banks to make the final determination on accepting foreign identification cards. That practice was established as part of the USA Patriot Act, which among other things aims to prevent terrorist groups from using the U.S. banking system to finance their operations.

"The chairman's position hasn't changed since he laid out his concerns," said Jeff Lungren, the Judiciary Committee spokesman. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) has introduced legislation to forbid acceptance of the cards for federal purposes.

In response to Sensenbrenner's request, Treasury officials took the unusual step of launching a full-scale review of the rule in question. The department sought comment from the public, banks, local governments and other federal agencies. It received 23,898 comments, of which about 83% favored making no changes in the foreign identification rules.

"This was a decision on whether the rules were adequate to deal with the security situation," said Treasury spokesman Taylor Griffin. "There was no new information presented during the comment period that hadn't already been considered."

Thursday's decision affects all foreign-issued identification cards. If the government determines in the future that any particular card poses a security problem, the Treasury rules provide a means for alerting banks.

"We do have a mechanism to inform financial institutions," Griffin said. "There really didn't seem to be any reason to prohibit a specific ID."

The Bush administration has been divided over whether Mexican identification cards pose a security problem. The Justice Department, the FBI and, recently, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge have raised concerns. But the Treasury and State departments have generally supported acceptance of the cards.

Meanwhile, an interagency task force is trying to come up with a single government-wide policy.

"This decision is significant because it signals that the Bush administration is open to working with the Mexican government to allow these cards to be used for identification," Appleby said.

But administration officials cautioned against reading too much into the decision. "This does not mean that the government has made a final decision on security concerns," said one official.

Proponents say acceptance of the matriculas by banks helps both the immigrants and law enforcement agencies. Immigrants are able to safeguard hard-earned dollars, wire money home at lower rates and establish credit. Law enforcement benefits because bank deposits are easier to track than cash moving in the underground economy.

Banks have embraced the cards. Wells Fargo has opened an estimated 80,000 accounts for holders of Mexican IDs since the bank began accepting them about two years ago. The bank requires customers to present another form of identification, besides the matricula, as well as a Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification number issued by the Internal Revenue Service.

Other countries, from Guatemala to Poland, are already issuing or considering similar cards for their citizens living here.

Mexico, which started the trend, says it is willing to work with U.S. authorities to improve the security of the cards. Mexican officials say they are working to create a central database of all matricula holders.

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