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More countries offering emigrant ID cards

'Matricula consular' popular, controversial

The identification card the Mexican government issues to Mexican nationals in the United States has been criticized by anti-immigration groups, opposed by key Republicans in Congress, and questioned by officials in the Department of Homeland Security. But the document known as a "matricula consular" has proved so successful that it is serving as a prototype for other Latin American countries with large emigrant populations in the United States.

The ID card, issued by the Mexican government to Mexican nationals who live and work in the United States, has been gaining acceptance from hundreds of police departments, local governments, and banks in New England and across the country.

Since March 2002, when an updated version of the "matricula," containing greater security measures, was created, more than 2 million matriculas have been issued to Mexican citizens living in this country. The Mexican Consulate in Boston has issued 2,000 in New England.

Guatemala, which began offering a similar card just a few months after Mexico, has issued more than 25,000 in the Northeast since August 2002. Ecuador has issued 20,000 matriculas to immigrants living in New York and New Jersey, home to the largest enclave of Ecuadoreans in this country.

The governments of Honduras and Nicaragua are considering proposals to issue matriculas, and could begin offering the ID cards early next year. In addition, several other countries, including Brazil and El Salvador, are closely monitoring the progress of Mexico's card as they weigh the possibility of following suit

"We saw how many places were accepting the Mexican matricula, and we wanted our Honduran people to receive the same benefits," said David Hernandez, Counselor for immigration affairs with the Honduran Embassy in Washington.

"We have been watching what Mexico and Guatemala have been doing very closely, and it's our government's intention to do the same," said Arturo Wallace, a spokesman with the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington. "It would allow our people here to function more naturally. Right now, they are at a disadvantage.

Without legal identification, said Margarita Gonzalez-Gamio, the consul general of Mexico in Boston, immigrants cannot open bank accounts, obtain senior citizen discounts for public transportation, get driver's licenses or automobile insurance. They often must pay large fees to cash checks or to wire money home to relatives in their native countries.

Last month, several Mexican families in New Hampshire lost their savings in a house fire. The immigrants kept their money at home because they could not open bank accounts. In addition, there have been numerous cases of immigrants jailed for days because they could not produce identification after being wrongly arrested, said Gonzalez-Gamio.

"It is important for the daily life of Mexicans here," said Gonzalez-Gamio, who uses her own matricula as ID when she enters federal buildings or visits the observation deck at the Prudential building. "In this country, you are nothing without identification."

Nationwide, the card is recognized as legal identification by 200 banks, 1,150 police departments, 350 cities, and 150 counties. Several states, including Indiana and Nevada, accept the card as identification to obtain a driver's license.

In September, the matricula received a major boost when the US Treasury Department agreed to let banks accept the card as identification for immigrants opening bank accounts.

In this region, the card is accepted as legal identification by nine cities, including Cambridge, Chelsea, Brookline, Providence, and Presque Isle, Maine. The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association has endorsed the concept of the card, and nine police department recognize it as legal identification.

"It helps my office identify people who have committed crimes and those who have not committed crimes," said Chelsea Chief of Police Frank J. Garvin. "We see nothing but a benefit."

Critics of the matricula say the card encourages illegal immigration and poses a security threat because it awards a legal status to people who enter the country illegally.

"If you look at the people who put Sept. 11 together, you see that they used drivers' licenses to come in, establish residence, open bank accounts, and board airplanes. The matricula card is the next best thing to possessing a driver's license," said David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates stricter controls on immigration. "It presents real national security concerns by allowing people unknown to the federal government to establish themselves here."

However, supporters of the Mexican ID card say it contains high-tech security measures that make it difficult to counterfeit or alter, which, in effect, make it more secure than a driver's license.

"As long as they can provide us with a level of comfort, some level of assurance that the person who carries the card is who they say they are, we think it's a good idea," said Plainville Police Chief Edward Merrick, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "The Mexican system of issuing cards seems pretty comprehensive. That gave us a level of comfort."

To obtain a matricula, Mexicans must show an original Mexican birth certificate, a photo ID card such as a driver's license or passport, and a utility bill or other proof of residence. The cards, contain embedded codes legible only with a plastic decoder. A card costs $28 and is valid for 5 years.

Other countries that plan to issue matriculas say they are trying to match, or exceed, the security measures on the Mexican card. The Guatemalan card contains holographic coding, a digital photo, and the current address of the cardholder.

The Honduran government is studying the use of cards with as many as 32 different security measures, compared with the 26 contained in the Mexican version, said David Hernandez.

"It would have the highest standard of security, better than the IDs issued in the United States." said Hernandez. "The benefit is both for the Honduran government and the US government because we can verify that the person is Honduran."

For immigrants like Veronica Velasco, 27, who lives in Connecticut but traveled to the Mexican Consulate in Boston recently to obtain a matricula, the benefit is very simple.

"I want to open a bank account," said Velasco, who carried her 1-year-old daughter, Yaclyn Sanchez. "With this, I'll be able to do that."

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