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This Card Draws a Crowd

Consular visits to Orange County cities bestow IDs to immigrants, many of them undocumented, for consumer uses.

September 27, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

More than 500 Mexican immigrants arrived at a mobile consular office in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday to get controversial ID cards while hearing pitches from a bank and a real estate agent.

Sponsored by a south Orange County immigrant advocacy group and the county's Mexican consulate, the event's main attraction was the chance to get a matricula consular.

The card is accepted as valid identification by some banks, health insurers and airlines. The Mexican government issues them mostly to undocumented immigrants for a fee of $26.

Although Santa Ana is the Orange County city best known for its large Latino community, about twice as many Orange County Latinos live outside that city, Consul Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro said.

"That's why this event makes so much sense," he said. "We are a community spread throughout the county."

With the help of a nonprofit called Unico -- United Communities Through Education -- the consulate program began four years ago and now goes to a different city in the county once a month.

With temporary setups in community centers, consular services are offered in Westminster, La Habra, Costa Mesa and other cities.

Because many immigrants have work-hour restrictions during the week and limited transportation, the consulate's mobile and weekend efforts draw big crowds, he said.

On Sunday, while waiting for their cards, hundreds listened as Citibank employees gave out banking information. Calculators, mugs, pens and fans with the Mexican flag were given out too.

"Even if you don't open it today, open a bank account," Lorena Maae, Citibank's assistant vice president for community relations in Orange County, told one group in Spanish. "It's the best way to watch your money and do what is best for your families."

After the Citibank presentation, Albert Salvat of Pacific Real Estate Network of San Juan Capistrano offered advice on homeownership. He told some that they could own a $300,000 home if the sellers paid the escrow closing costs and buyers rented out rooms or shared ownership.

"If you pay $1,100 in rent a month, someone has made $118,800 in nine years, and it wasn't you," Salvat explained.

Sunday's event came just days after a measure that would have prohibited banks from accepting the matricula consular failed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The matricula consular stirs the ire of illegal-immigration opponents who see the card, and the Mexican government's promotion of it, as a well-orchestrated campaign to bestow quasi-legal status.

Although more than 1 million people in California carry the cards, which resemble driver's licenses and display the bearer's U.S. address, the FBI does not consider them a reliable form of identification.

Even so, Mexican consulates issue hundreds of them weekly in Southern California.

Norberto Mejia, 23, missed work at his $7-an-hour restaurant job to get a matricula consular at Sunday's event.

He said police have stopped him several times while he biked home from work at midnight. They ask why he is out so late, he said, and he fears they will ask for identification, which until Sunday he did not have.

As an undocumented immigrant, he cannot get a driver's license.

"Before, I had nothing to show anyone who wanted me to prove who I was," he said, looking at his new identification card.

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