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Mexican ID cards gain acceptance in U.S. cities

By Deborah Tedford
Reuters, December 27, 2001

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) -- Alberto Herrera Ocampo, a yardman who scratched out a living with the lawn mower and garden tools he carted in a rusty pickup truck, seemed an unlikely target for a brutal robbery.

But walking home from a convenience store on a steamy evening last summer, the 22-year-old Mexican migrant was held up at gunpoint, then killed for what police said may have been as much as $3,000 -- all the money he earned during a few months' sojourn in Austin, Texas.

Police in a bigger city might have taken less notice, but in this central Texas city of 500,000, authorities saw a chilling pattern of victimization of undocumented migrants.

Including Herrera, three of Austin's four homicide victims in 2000 were illegal immigrants, police said. Some 47 percent of last year's robbery victims were Hispanic, who make up 28 percent of the population.

Knowing migrants often endure victimization rather than report crime and risk deportation, Austin police made it official policy to accept Mexican consular identification cards, called matriculas consulares, as proof of ID and local residence on crime reports from the undocumented -- with a commitment not to report them to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"Our job is to protect and serve the residents of Austin, legal and illegal. It's not our job to deport anyone, or report them to INS," said Assistant Police Chief Rudy Landeros.

Earlier this year, police joined Mexican consular officials to publicize the department's "we-won't-tell" pact with the immigrant community.

Banks cooperate

They also are persuading local banks -- including Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citibank -- in many southwestern states to accept the cards in lieu of Social Security cards for illegal immigrants who open non-interest bearing accounts.

"Not all Mexican nationals can get a Texas driver's license. The fact that the police accept the matricula consular provides more safety for these people," said Angeles Gomez, spokeswoman for the Mexican Consulate in Austin.

"They can identify themselves to authorities. They can open a bank account, and they don't carry money that has been the cause of violence against them," she said.

Undocumented workers in Austin have been robbed of amounts ranging from several hundred dollars to $7,000. They are usually paid in cash and often carry their earnings with them rather than leave money in a flophouse shared with a half-dozen strangers, Landeros said.

Changes in police policy and banking procedure are credited with cutting to zero the number of illegal migrants murdered in Austin this year, and causing a sharp spike in the number of robberies reported in the Hispanic community, Landeros said.

And acceptance of the Mexican ID cards has had the added benefit of freeing police to fight crime rather than spend precious hours to identify an undocumented worker.

Previously, a migrant stopped for a minor legal violation such as speeding or illegal parking was taken to jail until a positive identification was made. Now police write a ticket, as in any other case, Landeros said.

Mexicans living abroad

Mexican consulates worldwide have for years issued the cards as identification for Mexican nationals living abroad, legally or illegally, to use on return visits to Mexico.

Their use has been so successful in Austin that police departments throughout Orange County, California -- including Los Angeles and about two dozen other cities -- began recognizing the cards as valid identification last month.

But the cards are anathema to anti-immigrant groups in southern California. This month about 200 protesters in Anaheim demanded that Orange County police chiefs reconsider accepting the cards as identification, saying the action encourages illegal immigration. The demand was rejected.

This month, San Francisco became the first municipality in the United States to accept the cards for city and county programs, ranging from applying for small business loans to filling prescriptions at pharmacies in San Francisco County's public hospitals, said P.J. Johnston, spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

"San Francisco is a city built by immigrants," Johnston said. "Absolutely, the immigrant community makes a positive contribution to the city's tax base and cultural character."