Mexican Standoff
A congressional hearing on "matriculas."


Jim Geraghty

A House panel is beginning to take a hard look at the newest wrinkle in the immigration debate — identity cards distributed by Mexican consulates in the United States to illegal immigrants.

A little more than a year ago, Mexican consulates began widespread distribution of “matricula consulars” — identification cards issued by the Mexican government to illegal immigrants in the United States. Consular cards have been around for more than 140 years, but were primarily used by expatriates for identification purposes at their embassies and consulates abroad.

Today, illegal immigrants are finding them useful at banks that are increasingly accepting the cards as legitimate identification to open bank accounts and, in some cases, obtain driver’s licenses. According to Immigration Matters, a group calling for stricter enforcement of enforcement laws, about one million matriculas were distributed by Mexican consulates last year, and the card is now accepted as a form of identification by 402 localities, 32 counties, 122 financial institutions, and 908 law-enforcement offices.

The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims is concerned that a number of other countries, including Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Poland, Peru, and El Salvador are considering establishing similar programs of mass distribution of consular identification.

Colorado state senate president John Andrews told the House panel Thursday that Congress should pass a national version of his state’s ban on state and local offices from recognizing “non-secure, non-verifiable” foreign identity cards.

“[Colorado's] bill provides that for identification purposes, state, and local agencies in Colorado accept only secure and verifiable documents — which defines these documents as issued by a state or federal jurisdiction in this country, or issued by a foreign jurisdiction and officially recognized by the United States government,” Andrews said. “The best example of this would be a passport.”

Congressional reaction to the matriculas mostly broke down party lines.

Subcommittee Chair John Hostettler (R., Ind.), expressed concern that by helping illegal immigrants get services in the United States, foreign governments could “undermine federal immigration law and national immigration policy.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said she saw benefits to wider use of the cards, including the fact that illegal immigrants more likely to use bank accounts.

“Isn’t this better than them having their money under a mattress or somewhere else?” Lee asked. “This way we can track whether the money in these accounts is being used for illegal purposes. This is an asset to us. This helps law enforcement.”

Jackson Lee also said that the debate surrounding the matriculas was taking a racist tone.

“I keep hearing ‘Mexico, Mexico, Mexico,’” the congresswoman said. “I’m a little bit sensitive about the tone that is being used by some of the witnesses in this room… I return to the thought that we’re hearing the bashing of immigrants and bashing of those who come over our border from Mexico.”

Rep. Luis V. Guttierez (D., Ill.), who was testifying to the subcommittee about the benefits of widespread use of the matriculas, said much of the criticism was a modern version of past anti-immigrant sentiment.

“We harp and harp on one country and one consular office,” Guttierez said. “It’s nothing new. If this were the 1890s, we would be talking about the Italians. If this were the 1850s, we would be talking about the menace of the Irish.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Tex.), dismissed the charge that panelists were picking on America’s southern neighbor.

“Mexico has singled itself out by distributing these consular cards,” he said.

Craig Nelsen, executive director of Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement, told the committee that the federal government cannot count on cooperation from other nations in enforcing its immigration laws.

He submitted to the subcommittee a State Department memo that indicated that Miriam Fonseca, consular-affairs director for the nation of Nicaragua, said it was interested in pursuing its own consular I.D.-card program similar to Mexico’s. According to the memo, Fonseca told State Department personnel that the Nicaraguan consulate officials would not inquire about applicants’ legal status in the U.S., because “that is not a GON [government of Nicaragua] concern.”

The panel is scheduled to have another hearing on consular identification cards next week.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R., Calif.), said he saw one unintended benefit of the card to police forces and immigration-enforcement officials.

“The only good thing that can come out of this for law enforcement is that anyone who would use this card as their sole source of identification is an illegal immigrant,” Gallegly said.

Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, is a regular contributor to NRO.