06/18/2010 03:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

IDs for Undocumented Spark Controversy

The issue of providing IDs to illegal immigrants has recently become a hot topic as municipal governments in New Jersey and California have embraced the concept. In New Jersey, the cities of Trenton, Princeton and Asbury Park have begun issuing community identification cards to undocumented residents. Cities in California, including San Francisco began issuing similar cards to residents in 2009. No proof of legal residence is required and no questions are asked of anyone seeking an ID.

The ID cards are essential, Latino rights advocates say, because they will allow illegal aliens to get medical treatment at taxpayer-funded clinics, borrow books from local libraries, vote, cash checks and access other public services offered by cities and counties they live in. Without government-issued photo identification, these things are usually off limits to illegal immigrants.

Illegal aliens within California have for years been able to obtain another form of ID, the matricula consular card, from Mexican consulates in the state. The issue made national headlines recently when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) flew to Catalina Island on June 3rd in order to prevent the Mexican consulate from selling additional IDs during a planned convention at the island. Two years ago, the consulate also visited the island and sold IDs to many members of a sizable illegal immigrant population there. Some have accused Rohrabacher of grandstanding to bring political attention to himself by portraying the community as a haven for illegal immigrants. Regardless of Rohrabacher's motives, he did provide a valuable service by alerting constituents to the disastrous impact on US national security matricula consular cards could pose.

In 2003, the FBI testified before Congress that it viewed the matricula consular cards as a national security risk.

"The Department of Justice and the FBI have concluded that the matricula consular is not a reliable form of identification," said Steven McCraw, assistant director of the FBI's intelligence office. "There are major criminal threats posed by the cards and (a) potential terrorist threat."

The matricula consular cards are not secured identification documents, as the Mexican government does not authenticate credentials used to obtain the ID against computerized data files in Mexico. No major bank in Mexico accepts the card to open an account and the cards are recognized as IDs in only 10 of Mexico's 32 states. Despite this fact, the cards are accepted as identification by more than 70 US banks, 800 police departments and numerous local governments. Mexico has issued more than 7.2 million cards in the US since 2002 through a network of 50 consulates in various American cities.

Many within the Mexican government downplay the risk posed by the matricula consular cards.

"The main objective is to provide our citizens with an ID card here, whatever they need it for," said Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington. "It's better for everyone to know who they are and where they live." Alday's comments appear naïve or misinformed, seeing as he fails to acknowledge the possibility that foreign nationals may lie about their names and residences on the cards.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that the card is essentially a back door attempt at a stealth amnesty and a direct challenge to the jurisdiction of Congress over U.S. immigration policy. Mexico rolled out the card in 2003 when it became obvious that the US, on the heels of 9/11, would not approve an amnesty program for undocumented aliens within the country. Officials within the Mexican government have also hinted at this ulterior motive in some of their commentary. Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez, director of the Mexican card program was quoted as saying, "It's necessary to push the need for an amnesty at all levels."

The US Treasury has never publicly discouraged the use of the matricula consular card and a number of banks in the US have opted to accept the card as a means of identification. Banks have continued accepting the cards despite well-publicized instances of fraud perpetrated by cardholders. ICE officials in Denver and Los Angeles have recently arrested men who possessed numerous matricula consular cards with different names.

Some US policymakers have attempted to curb the threat the cards pose through legislation but have thus far been unsuccessful on the federal level. On Jan. 29, 2003, former Congressman Tom Tancredo introduced HR 502, which would have prohibited any US government agency from using the matricula consular card as a valid ID. President George W. Bush did not support the bill, probably due to his administration's desire to appease undocumented immigrants in an effort to court the Hispanic vote. The bill never made it to the floor for a vote.

Some states, like Colorado, have been more proactive than the federal government and have successfully passed laws banning the acceptance of matricula consular IDs within state borders. However, an audit in Colorado in 2008 discovered that most of the government agencies within the state were not aware of and not enforcing the ban. No single state agency was required to administer the ban in Colorado and thus it was often ignored. Leadership must come from the federal level in an effort to discourage fraud and possible breaches in national security.

A great deal of uncertainty remains about the security threat that municipal cards pose. Municipal card programs are new and thus no major audit has been conducted to identify abuses. Considering the history of the matricula consular card, abuse seems fairly likely. It is unclear at this point whether the municipal cards will simply serve as a temporary policy experiment until the Obama administration rolls out a National ID biometric card that has been proposed in the past.

Progressives for Immigration Reform is a non-profit organization seeking to educate the public on the unintended consequences of mass migration. For more information, visit