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Consular ID Cards: Mexico and Beyond
By Kevin O'Neil
Migration Policy Institute
For the estimated 8.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United
States, day-to-day life has always been precarious. Not only do they not have
the legal right to live and work in America, but many cannot prove their own
identity. Lack of identification prevents undocumented immigrants from
accessing the few public and private services that are available to them and
intensifies their fear of contact with police and other official institutions.
The events of September 11 and the scrutiny of undocumented immigrants that
followed deepened this anxiety. In this light, many of the estimated 4.7
million Mexicans living in the US without authorization turned to a
little-known Mexican government identity document called the matrícula
consular. The ID cards have given undocumented immigrants a sense of security
but have been received with mixed reactions by public and private institutions.
A sharp debate on the merits of consular IDs has engaged the public, political
circles, the media, the private sector, immigration authorities, and law
enforcement agencies. On the one hand, proponents of such programs say the
cards protect immigrants, their families, and communities by facilitating their
ability to open bank accounts, access some limited public services, and work
with authorities to resolve crimes and other social ills. On the other hand,
critics question whether undocumented immigrants should have access to such
services, and assert that consular ID programs subvert US policy and promote
How this debate shapes up is likely to have significant consequences for
millions of undocumented immigrants. It is also likely to have a bearing on how
the United States shapes its domestic security efforts. Understanding the
debate requires examining several key aspects of the consular ID programs,
including the extensive Mexican program, the cards' relationship to immigrant
banking and remittances, the effect on local law enforcement, and the prospects
for developing such programs for other countries.
Mexico's Vast ID Program
Mexican consulates have issued the matrícula consular, also know as the
matrícula, to Mexican citizens living abroad for 131 years. The ID card
is a way for the Mexican government to keep track of its citizens for consular
and tax purposes, collect data on them, and provide them with what the
government considers to be a basic human right: the ability to identify
The cards identify the holder, certify that he or she is a Mexican citizen, and
give his or her birthplace and US address. They cost about $29 each and are
valid for five years. The cards are issued without regard to immigration status
and give no immigration information. Mexicans in the US legally can and do use
the matrícula, particularly when returning to Mexico, but it is most
useful to the undocumented because they are less likely to have passports,
green cards, or other forms of identification.
Security of Mexico's Matrícula Consular
The matrícula consular is available to any Mexican citizen living
abroad. Applications for the matrícula must be submitted in person to
consular officials. The applicant must present a Mexican birth certificate
accompanied by a photo ID issued by a Mexican government authority, such as a
voter registration card, passport, military service card, or expired
matrícula. If the applicant cannot provide these documents, the
consulate confirms the applicant's identity by investigating his or her
background through authorities in Mexico. Additionally, the applicant must
provide some proof of their address in the US, usually a utility bill, and that
address must be within the consular district of the consulate issuing the card.
The information, card number, and a digital photo of the applicant are recorded by the consulate and sent
to a central registry in Mexico.
Critics say that the documents used to verify identity and citizenship when
the cards are issued can be falsified. They cite a case in which a Mexican
arrested on immigration violations was found with three matrícula cards
in different names. They also argue that it would be possible for a national of
another country to obtain a matrícula by fraud.
Proponents suggest that the matrículas are comparable, in terms of
security, to US state-issued driver licenses. Sophisticated tamper-proof
holograms make the cards extremely difficult to forge or modify. Soon, say
supporters, the matrículas will have a security feature that driver
licenses do not: Mexico is creating a computer network that will give all
consulates instant access to information on cardholders.
While the matrículas are not new, a combination of factors converged in
late 2001 and early 2002 to make the matrícula explode in popularity.
First, anxiety over identification following September 11 prompted Mexicans to
apply for the card in droves. In response to that anxiety and demand, the
Mexican government began to market the cards through its network of 47
consulates in the US, and set up "mobile consulates" to issue the
matrícula in communities without a consulate. The intense outreach
proved effective. In 2002, Mexico issued over 1.4 million of the cards in the
US alone, compared to the 664,000 it issued worldwide in 2001.
In addition, the Mexican government rolled out novel strategies to make the
matrículas more useful to cardholders. Beginning in early 2002, Mexico
enhanced the security provisions of the matrícula and the process used
to issue it. It also conducted a well-organized campaign to educate US banks,
police departments, and governments about the new features and encourage them
to accept the matrícula as a valid form of identification. The campaign
targeted two fundamental needs of undocumented Mexican immigrants: the ability
to identify oneself to local law enforcement and the ability to access
financial services in order to save and remit money.
Banking and Remittances
Even before September 11, lack of identification posed a problem for
undocumented immigrants who wanted to open a bank account or send money home.
Some 43 percent of Latinos in the US do not have bank accounts, and a far
larger proportion of undocumented Mexican immigrants do not have bank accounts.
Lack of identification is one of several reasons why undocumented immigrants do
not use banks. Shut out of the formal financial system, undocumented immigrants
tend to cash paychecks at expensive check-cashing shops, save their earnings in
cash, and use either unreliable informal networks or costly wire-transfer
services to send money home. This makes them targets for robbery and home
invasion, subjects them to high transaction costs, and represents unused
The money sent home by Mexicans working abroad equals at least 1.1 percent
of Mexico's GDP, so the banking issue is important to Mexico's domestic economy
as well as the welfare of its citizens abroad. In the past two years, the
matrícula has helped Mexicans satisfy the documentation requirements of
US banks and given those banks a new market. At last count, over 70 banks and
56 credit unions accepted the matrícula as one of the two forms of
identification usually required for opening an account. These banks include
giants such as Citibank, Bank of America, US Bancorp, and Wells Fargo. Wells
Fargo estimates that it has used the matrícula to open over 70,000 new
accounts since it began accepting the card in November 2001.
Public policy by both the Mexican and US government played a significant role
in the acceptance of the matrícula by mainstream financial institutions.
The Mexican government gave the card security features strong enough to satisfy
US banks and actively promoted the new card to the major institutions in the
sector. In July 2002, the US Treasury Department issued guidance to banks
explicitly stating that the "know your customer" requirements of one of the new
pieces of domestic security legislation, the USA Patriot Act, did not prohibit
banks from using the matrícula as one way to verify
identification. However, it stopped short of endorsing use of the card.
Local Law Enforcement
Local US police and sheriff departments have been among the most enthusiastic
backers of the consular IDs. Nationwide, an estimated 800 departments accept
the matrícula as valid identification. Many cities have also received
the scanners that allow officers to check the cards' most sophisticated
Police departments welcome the cards for the following reasons:
•By facilitating the use of banks, the cards help immigrants avoid
carrying or stockpiling large amounts of cash, which makes them targets for
robbery and home invasions. In some cases, the police themselves have asked
local banks to accept the matrícula.
•Having identification encourages people to report crimes and to come
forward as witnesses. It also allows police to keep better records.
•When the police stop someone without identification on a minor charge,
they are forced to hold them overnight when a citation would otherwise suffice.
Resources are also wasted in identifying detained undocumented immigrants.
•People without identification are more likely to flee when stopped by
•The matrículas make it easier to identify dead or unconscious
•Local police are generally not responsible for immigration enforcement,
so immigration status is irrelevant for their purposes.
Other Impacts of the Matrícula
There are several other realms in which the impact of consular ID cards have
begun to be felt.
Direct uses of the cards lie in the very narrow band of public and private
services for which high-quality identification is required, but proof of legal
residency is not. Private companies have begun to accept the matrícula
for opening accounts for utilities and insurance. USAir and Aeromexico, among
other airlines, allow passengers to use the matrícula to board flights
originating in the US.
The local governments of 80 cities, including Tucson, Phoenix, Denver, Los
Angeles, San Antonio, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and Dallas accept the
matrícula for uses such as obtaining a library card, entering public
buildings, obtaining business licenses, registering children for school, and
accessing a few, limited public services. At the state level, the most
important use of the matrículas is in obtaining driver licenses.
Although most states now require proof of legal immigration status, there are
about 13 states that do accept the matrícula as proof of identity when
issuing a license.
The acceptance of matrículas has not, however, been uniform. In both
Arizona and Colorado, at least one house of the state legislature has passed
legislation banning use of the matrícula by state and local governments.
At the federal level, public policy has been mixed. Most federal programs
require proof of legal residency, so the impact of the matrícula has
been minimal. A pilot program to accept the matrícula for entry to a
federal courthouse was scrapped under political pressure. The Department of
Homeland Security has not made decisions explicitly involving the
matrícula. The Transportation Safety Administration, for example, lets
airlines set their own criteria for acceptable identification for passenger
check-in. In the US Congress, a bill has been introduced that would formally
endorse use of the matrícula for banking, as well as one that would bar
federal agencies from accepting any foreign-issued ID other than a passport.
Countries Following Suit
Other nations are now trying to follow Mexico's example. Guatemalan consulates
recently began issuing a similar card, which is now accepted by several banks.
Peru plans to begin a pilot program within the next two months. Honduras, El
Salvador, and Poland are also said to be planning consular ID card programs. No
other country has yet matched Mexico's political and logistical support of
such programs, but they may find that Mexico's success has blazed a trail for
them both with US governments and businesses and in raising awareness among
It is important to note, however, that consular identification programs are not
new. Guatemala, for example, has long issued passports to its citizens living
abroad without regard to their immigration status. Since 1999, these passports
have been roughly as secure as the Mexican matrículas currently are, and
contain all of the same information except for a US address. Requirements for
obtaining the passports are no more stringent than for the ID cards. A number
of other countries also issue passports through their consulates.
The popularity of consular IDs could raise new difficulties. If a large number
of countries issue such cards, the process of verifying their authenticity
might become confusing and costly. If other countries introduce less secure
consular IDs, they could be confused with more secure documents like the
Mexican matrícula, with the effect of either compromising security or
degrading confidence in the better IDs.
Public perceptions of particular countries could also play a role in US
acceptance of further consular ID programs. While the Mexican consular IDs have
raised relatively little concern with voters, if a country such as Pakistan
issued an equally secure ID card, it might provoke a different reaction. Each
of these hypothetical situations demonstrates the need for well-guided and
coherent public policy on the issue.
Areas for Future Research
Both consular ID cards and the new emphasis on identification as a security
measure are relatively new public policy issues. Policymakers are now seeking
answers to a range of questions, including:
• How secure are the matrículas and other consular ID cards
compared to state-issued drivers licenses, passports, and other forms of
identification? How useful is identification in general as a security tool?
• As consular IDs flourish, do the US, immigrant-sending countries, or
individual states have an interest in setting security standards for the IDs?
More stringent security measures, particularly in issuing the IDs, will boost
the confidence of US officials, but make it harder for immigrants from poor and
rural areas to get identification.
•What services can consular IDs currently be used to access? Use of the
matrícula outside of law enforcement and banking has not been well
documented. The services available to undocumented immigrants and
identification requirements vary across state and local jurisdictions. Although
this issue ties into the ongoing debate over what rights and privileges
undocumented immigrants should have, a realistic assessment of the fiscal costs
and social benefits of accepting the matrículas could inform debate.
•For what uses should consular IDs be accepted and why? What are the real
benefits and risks in each case? Using the IDs for local law enforcement
purposes may not have an obvious downside, but for other uses, such as boarding
airplanes or entering federal buildings, this is not entirely clear.
•What are "best practices" for other countries launching consular
identification programs? Mexico's experience with the matrícula is a
potential model, but other innovations are available for consideration. For
example, the Philippines gives its workers going abroad an ID card that doubles
as an ATM card, in order to encourage them to save and remit.
The impact of consular ID cards in the United States, while far-reaching, is
still unclear. Opponents of the programs argue that, by granting undocumented
immigrants increased access to institutions and services, they permit
undocumented immigrants to take a step toward de facto regularization. They
also express concern that the cards and the process for issuing them are not
sufficiently secure and could be abused by criminal or terrorist elements.
Supporters of consular ID programs counter that acceptance of the card promotes
law and order by encouraging undocumented immigrants to assist police and use
formal financial channels. They also argue that state-issued driver's licenses
are equally imperfect security tools and point out that the consular ID cards
in no way affect enforcement of US immigration law. Ultimately, say proponents,
denying the use of the matrícula does nothing to discourage unwanted
immigration and only serves to further marginalize a class of people who
contribute greatly to the American economy.
Many on both sides see the cards as a symptom of inconsistent immigration
policies, but disagree on the solution. For critics, the cards demonstrate the
need for strict enforcement of immigration laws; for proponents, the problem is
the absence of sufficient legal migration channels.
The debate over consular IDs continues, affecting a broad spectrum of US
policy. Federal, state, and local governments all have a stake in the outcome,
as do the private sector, foreign governments, and the public. Most affected of
all could be millions of undocumented immigrants, who will see their fortunes
affected by the fate of consular ID programs.
Bair, Sheila. 2003. Statement before
the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Hearings
on Matrícula Consular. Washington, March 26.
Dinerstein, Marti. 2003. IDs for Illegals. Center for Immigration Studies
Backgrounder, Washington: CIS.
Embassy of Mexico in the United States and the Mexican Consulate in Washington,
Passels, Jeffrey. 2002. "New Estimates of the Undocumented Population
in the United States." Migration Information Source.
Suro, Robert, Sergio Bendixen, B. Lindsay Lowell, and Dulce C. Benavides. 2002.
in Motion: Latino Immigrants, Remittances and Banking. Washington: Pew
United Nations. 2002. International Migration Report: 2002.
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