JEFFREY KAYE: Each weekday, there are long waits at Mexico's Los Angeles consulate. Mexican citizens, many here illegally, wait to have their documents checked, provide thumbprints, get photographed, then wait some more. As they do, a clerk completes the finished product: laminated consular identification cards.
CLERK: Tanquana Cervantes?
JEFFREY KAYE: The consulate distributes four to five hundred cards a day. Each "matricula consular," as it is known in Spanish, includes the holder's name and address, photograph, birth date and place. Even though the cards are issued by a foreign government, they are increasingly accepted as legitimate ID by public agencies and businesses across the county.
CLAUDIA TORRES (Translated): It's just that so many places ask for identification, and this is the only thing we have to say who we are.
JEFFREY KAYE: Several countries issue consular IDs, but Mexican consulates have been the most active in promoting the cards. They have distributed more than a million and a half in the last two years. The matricula consular does not affect anyone's immigrant status, but it does change people's lives, says Alejandra Bologna, an administrator with L.A.'s Mexican consulate.
ALEJANDRA BOLOGNA, Los Angeles' Mexican Consulate: It helps people to come out of their anonymity, which they live for years. And the second important thing is that they can save their money in banks -- no more in their houses, under their beds, or with them.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mexican officials candidly acknowledge that the card assists illegal immigrants by providing a document for the undocumented. Consul General Martha Lara argues that acceptance of the cards is a matter of human rights.
MARTHA LARA, Consul General, Mexico: If you need them, and your economy needs them -- and this is not under discussion -- why not give them their rights? You want them to work, but you don't want them to have a bank account?
JEFFREY KAYE: While Lara and others see the cards as a legitimate way to give millions who labor in the shadows a stake in American society, others view them as an unjust reward to illegal immigrants and a threat to national security. The Bush administration is divided over the issue.
ASA HUTCHINSON, Department of Homeland Security: We have very little confidence in the security of the matricula consular card.
JEFFREY KAYE: Asa Hutchinson is undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security. He doesn't trust the cards.
ASA HUTCHINSON: The issuance of matricula consular cards are not sufficiently monitored by the government of Mexico. Clearly they have a right to issue identification documents to their citizens wherever they are; any country does. But we are disappointed that there's not better controls over those. There's not a central registry that we can check with on a regular basis to verify the identity and the use of those.
JEFFREY KAYE: Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI have warned that Mexico's matricula consular poses a criminal and terrorist threat, claiming it is vulnerable to fraud and forgery. But the U.S. Treasury Department has approved the use of the cards, and the State Department has given its tacit approval.
The various positions within the administration should be viewed not as conflicts, but as a search for the proper balance, says Hutchinson.
ASA HUTCHINSON: We want to have adequate security measures out there, which is to be able to regulate the flow of illegal money, to make sure that money flows through the legal channels. So that's a security issue. You balance that with not facilitating the presence of those people who are illegally in the country.
DAVID AYON: I think the matricula is a perfect example of the Bush administration's ambivalence.
JEFFREY KAYE: Political analyst David Ayon says different policies within the administration reflect conflicting desires. Ayon is a research associate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who studies Latino politics and U.S.-Mexico relations. He says the Bush administration wants to enforce immigration laws on the one hand, and on the other, to provide millions of working but illegal immigrants more secure lives.
DAVID AYON: It didn't want to incur the political cost of fighting for some big legalization program, but nevertheless it allowed the Treasury Department to give its OK to the matricula, which allows for people to have a valid ID and open bank accounts and be able to actually interact with police departments without getting hauled in and possibly deported. So in a way, this is why the critics call it a sort of a backdoor form of legalization.
JEFFREY KAYE: The State Department supports the use of the cards for a pragmatic reason: If the U.S. doesn't accept consular IDs from other nations, it might be tough to persuade those countries to recognize the consular IDs the State Department issues to Americans abroad. As for the Treasury Department, with business worth billions of dollars at stake, it decided that financial institutions should have the flexibility to accept the cards or not.
That ruling came in September, after it solicited comments about the card's security. Financial institutions large and small across the country sent letters urging the department to allow them to accept the cards. Among them, Wells Fargo wrote: "Wells Fargo believes that Mexican nationals contribute to the U.S. in many ways and are entitled to receive banking services."
BRENDA ROSS-DULAN, Wells Fargo: Well, I think our assessment here is really to not look at the legality of that person's status within the country.
JEFFREY KAYE: Brenda Ross-Dulan is a senior vice president of Wells Fargo, the nation's fourth largest financial services company. It is one of about a hundred financial institutions that now accepts the matricula consular. The company is aggressively marketing itself to migrants.
Wells Fargo has opened up more than a quarter of a million accounts to customers using the matricula.
BRENDA ROSS-DULAN: In my particular market here in the Los Angeles area, in this particular store where you are, which is the second highest store in terms of opening up accounts with the matricula, just in this market, it has contributed to more than double-digit growth in checking accounts.
JEFFREY KAYE: But checking accounts are not the only reason financial institutions want immigrants as customers. As a recent report put it, "as people move north, money moves south." With some 6 million immigrants from Latin America regularly sending earnings to their native countries, the flow of remittances reached an estimated $30 billion in 2003.
Money transfer businesses reap profits through commissions and exchange rates, and the competition to capture the hot remittance market is intense. Wells Fargo customer Veronica Navarro used a matricula consular to open an account which she uses to transfer funds to relatives abroad for a fee of $10 per transaction.
VERONICA NAVARRO: I send money to my parents in Mexico, in Guadalajara. They live there, so I have to send money, like, twice a week ... I mean a month, like every two weeks.
JEFFREY KAYE: For Navarro, a Mexican citizen, opening a bank account also allowed her to establish credit instead of conducting all her transactions in cash, as she once did.
VERONICA NAVARRO: Right now I have the open account, so I can put the money in savings. The money ... so it's ... it's more easy.
JEFFREY KAYE: You don't have to have ... you don't have to have all the cash?
VERONICA NAVARRO: No, I don't.
JEFFREY KAYE: The cards have allowed illegal immigrants to enter the financial mainstream, says David Ayon.
DAVID AYON: Now they're looking at the possibility on down the road of possibly even purchasing homes, really settling down, rather than living several families to an apartment or in a garage, always keeping their money in cash, always on the run because if they get stopped for anything at all, they have no valid ID.
JEFFREY KAYE: To what extent does this legitimize or regularize the status of the undocumented?
DAVID AYON: It absolutely does. It provides them the possibility of a far more normal life or a far greater normalized life than they would otherwise have.
JEFFREY KAYE: Not all financial institutions accept the matricula consular. Its reception has also been mixed outside the banking community. Many jurisdictions don't recognize them, but 13 states accept the cards for driver's license applications. And nearly 1,000 municipalities around the country honor the cards -- among them: Santa Ana, Calif.
Santa Ana has the highest number of foreign-born nationals of any major U.S. city except Miami. In Santa Ana, with a matricula consular, a resident can bank, get a library card, pay for utilities, and report a crime. The Santa Ana Police Department accepts the matricula for identification. The city's police chief is Paul Walters.
PAUL WALTERS, Police Chief, Santa Ana, Calif.: It doesn't prove whether they're here legally or illegally. It's just to say, "I say I'm John Smith; this ID shows that I am John Smith." We feel reasonably comfortable that that person is who they say they are.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Walters' approach is not shared by many other police departments. In neighboring Riverside County, sheriff's deputies don't honor the cards.
PAT McNAMARA: From a law enforcement standpoint, the IDs are useless.
JEFFREY KAYE: Pat McNamara is president of the Riverside Sheriff's Association, which represents 1,500 deputies.
PAT McNAMARA: Common sense dictates, you know, that we not impose on local law enforcement that they accept a form of identification, in legitimate law enforcement context, that cannot be verified. That's pure common sense.
PAUL WALTERS: It's not 100 percent perfect, but this is something that people can get, and you'll feel more comfortable with them versus the criminal. The criminal's not going to go to the consulate and produce birth certificate and all those papers. They're not going to do that.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Mexican government does not maintain a central database for the matricula that U.S. law enforcement agencies can check, but Mexican officials insist the card itself is virtually impossible to forge.
ALEJANDRA BOLOGNA: It has change color, visible. Then, if you have ultraviolet lights, immediately it will show all ... in the cards, some letters. And then we have the codification information that you can just read it with a special decoder.
JEFFREY KAYE: With widespread acceptance of the matricula consular, Latino and civil rights groups are becoming increasingly vocal in pressing for expanded rights for illegal immigrants. The president is reportedly planning to offer an immigration proposal that, in the words of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, would afford illegal immigrants, "some kind of legal status."