Monterey County officials consider accepting Mexican ID cards from undocumented workers.
Thursday, March 14, 2002
Photo by Jennifer Flowers; What''s in The Cards--Last Saturday, after waiting in line for hours at Greenfield Elementary School, 803 Mexican immigrants were issued official identification by the Mexican consulate. In several California cities, the ID cards must be honored by city and county agencies.
On Tuesday, March 12, the House of Representatives passed a controversial bill that will allow some illegal immigrants to remain in the United States while applying for permanent residency. It''s seen as a goodwill gesture in advance of President George W. Bush''s trip to Mexico next week to visit Mexican President Vicente Fox-but it is a move that has been a long time coming.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush regularly floated the idea of legalizing undocumented Mexican workers. Since the terrorist attacks, his administration seems to have back-burnered the idea, but it''s expected to be a hot topic of conversation next week during Bush''s trip to Mexico for a meeting with President Vicente Fox.
The issue of amnesty for the more than three million undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. helped elect Fox to office, and it''s likely to come up again during the U.S. presidential race in two years. Political analysts say that if President Bush wants to win reelection in 2004, he will need to win at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Here in California, the amnesty issue has grown in importance. In 2001, the California Senate and Assembly approved a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants who are applying for legal status to obtain a driver''s license. The bill was withdrawn after Sept. 11 for revision, but it''s expected to be introduced again this year.
Meanwhile, San Francisco last month became the first county in the nation to put a law on the books mandating that city and county agencies accept ID cards issued by the Mexican consulate. The ID card, called a matricula consular, looks like a state-issued driver''s license and can be used as legal photo identification. Libraries, MUNI and local law enforcement agencies also recognize these wallet-sized cards as official identification.
Soon afterwards, Oakland city councilmembers passed a similar law. The Orange County Police Department has approved a comparable policy, and the San Jose PD plans to implement one.
Blanca Zarazua wants to see Monterey County follow suit.
"After 9/11, so many people feel the need to have some form of valid identification that''s easily recognizable," says Zarazua, a Salinas tax lawyer and chair of the Monterey County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "For a lot of Mexican nationals, this is the only form of ID they can get."
Zarazua met with the police chiefs from Monterey County''s 12 cities on Feb. 14 to win support for the IDs.
"We really have to have law enforcement on board, not only officially, but in spirit," Zarazua says. "Secondly, this is a law-enforcement issue-a security issue-and so we need to get their feedback. Thirdly, when this goes to the [County] supervisors, they will undoubtedly ask what law enforcement thinks, so we really need to have them involved from the ground up."
"Prima facia, these cards look like an excellent idea," says Salinas Police Chief Daniel Ortega, adding that the county''s police chiefs still have some concerns about the security of the cards.
In the next few months, the Consulate will start distributing cards that are even safer, complete with new technology that will include an individual''s ID information in a magnetic strip.
Once the consulate begins issuing the new cards, Zarazua plans to approach the Board of Supervisors with a proposal.
Validating the Mexican ID card would save the county and the cities money as it would reduce police processing time of undocumented immigrants who are stopped for minor offenses, such as jaywalking or driving without a license.
"If we could make these cards work, it would probably save my officers a tremendous amount of time," Ortega says. "Right now, if they don''t have any ID and they are driving, we have to confirm that they are who they say they are, which might entail getting a hold of somebody at their residence, or whomever owns the vehicle, and as a last resort we might have to arrest them, although the officers will take an inordinate amount of time and effort to not do that. Still, we''d like to be able to confirm who they are, issue them a traffic citation and be on our way."
Last weekend, throngs of immigrants descended on a makeshift satellite office in South Monterey County to obtain ID cards.
When Mexican Consulate official Hugo Juarez arrived in Greenfield at about 10pm on Friday night, there were already two cars parked outside Greenfield Elementary School waiting for the morning to come. When Juarez returned to the school at 6am the following day, a group of men were standing single-file.
"We had told them everyone who arrived by 3pm would get a matricula, but maybe they wanted to be first in line," he says. "Maybe they weren''t sure they would get the cards. But they were lined up by 2am."
The San Jose-based Mexican Consulate serves Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. It''s located in downtown San Jose, and it''s the place to go for immigrants in the four-county area seeking passports and ID cards. However, it only issues the cards between 8am and noon, Monday to Friday-inconvenient hours of operation for people who work or live outside of San Jose.
By the time Consulate officials opened the satellite office on March 9, the long line of immigrants snaked for hundreds of yards past the school''s cafeteria doors. The doors opened at 8:30am and didn''t close until 6pm. During the day consulate officials issued 122 passports and 803 identification cards to mostly undocumented immigrants who have lived in the country for at least six months and who submitted a birth certificate along with photo identification.
The card provides the individual''s name, address, photo, date and place of birth, identification number and a Mexican government logo.
The Mexican Consulate in San Jose typically issues about 1,300 cards a month for the four-county area, Juarez says. But that''s in a normal year.
"But in the first few months of 2002, we''re reaching 4,000 a month," he says. "The demand is huge and it''s increasing."
He says the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks play a large role in the growing demand for the cards.
"Especially for those Mexicans who are undocumented, this is a way to prove to the authorities who they are, where they live, and what their nationality is," he explains.
In late 2001, U.S. Bancorp, Union Bank of California, and Wells Fargo Bank began accepting matricula consular cards as valid identification to allow undocumented Mexican immigrants to open bank accounts.
Wells Fargo was the first.
"If we''re going to start bringing people into the mainstream of financial services, it makes sense to offer checking accounts to people who are spending a lot of money on cashier''s checks, money orders, just so they can pay a couple of bills each month," says Tim Rios, a vice president at Wells Fargo.
Rios says it''s a move towards becoming "the bank of choice for Hispanics" for Wells Fargo, whose officials have been courting the Latino population since ''97, offering small business loans and transferring funds to immigrants'' families in Mexico.
Aside from being a good business maneuver for the banking industry, it''s also safer for immigrants.
"You hear stories about people keeping their money at home, under the mattress, or carrying everything that they have with them," Rios says. "We certainly wanted people to know that keeping money in a Wells Fargo checking account was much safer-especially when they are being targeted by folks who want to assault them for the money that they have in their pockets."
Bank accounts also makes the immigrants eligible for loans to pay for big-ticket purchases like cars and houses.
"We''re talking a market of $9 billion a year that Mexicans [living in California] sent to their families in Mexico last year," Juarez says. "This allows them to put this money into the mainstream of the economy, to make it active in the market. It also makes it easier and cheaper to send funds to their families in Mexico, with better exchange rates."
Zarazua says she knows criticism will come.
The Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform openly criticized Wells Fargo''s and Southern California''s efforts to embrace the undocumented population, saying that by accepting Mexican ID cards, the banking industry is making it easier and more convenient for illegal immigrants to enter the county and break the law.
"All of these things facilitate these people coming into the country and blending into the scenery," spokesman Ira Mehlman told the Los Angeles Times. "If people are here breaking the law, it shouldn''t be the obligation of society to make it more convenient for them."
Anticipating the inevitable condemnation from the far right, Zarazua faintly sighs and rolls her eyes.
"The sole purpose is to serve as valid ID," she says. "It does not serve any purpose other than that."