The Issuance, Acceptance and Reliability of Consular Identification Cards

By Marti Dinerstein June 2003

Testimony prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims

June 19, 2003

Statement of Marti Dinerstein
Fellow, Center for Immigration Studies


Good afternoon, Chairman Hostettler, Ranking Member Jackson-Lee and members of the Subcommittee. I'm pleased to appear before this subcommittee to speak about an issue with important ramifications for homeland security and U.S. immigration policy.

Secure identification documents are essential to homeland security.

Before 9/11, America was in many ways an innocent nation. We expedited visas to those who wished to study here, made tourist and work visas readily available and welcomed those who wished to emigrate permanently. Indeed, we even were heading toward a don't ask, don't tell policy, where people in the country illegally were tacitly permitted to remain to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Post 9/11, we realized that we had been too permissive in our open-handed visa policy, negligent about monitoring the timely departure of visa holders and culpable in failing to protect our borders end enforce our immigration laws.

We also received a wake-up call that something must be done to protect America's core identity documents. The American people were shocked to learn that 18 of the 19 terrorists possessed either state-issued or counterfeit driver's licenses or ID cards, and all 19 had obtained Social Security numbers - some real, some fake. Possession of these documents permitted the hijackers, at least three of whom were here illegally on 9/11, to seamlessly meld into our society and freely move throughout the country.

Many states tightened the procedures by which foreign nationals obtain driver's licenses and ID cards and some moved to make legal residence one of the requirements for a license. Congress was quick to call the INS, State Department and Social Security Administration to task and press for immediate programs to rectify gaping holes in our issuance of identification documents.

Indeed, the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, passed overwhelmingly by Congress, specifically addressed two areas of weakness with respect to America's identity documents.

Concerned that some of the terrorists had obtained commercial driver's licenses to transport hazardous materials, Congress mandated that no commercial license be issued without a check of the relevant criminal history databases and, in the case of an alien, a determination of his or her legal status in the United States.

Similarly, Congress directed the Treasury Department, in consultation with regulatory and other agencies, to study and provide recommendations for enhancing the ability of domestic financial institutions to verify the identity of foreign nationals.

Ironically, however, these positive developments are being undercut by an identity card issued by the government of Mexico, the specific intent of which is to gain privileges and benefits previously reserved for citizens and legal immigrants for an estimated five million Mexicans residing illegally in the U.S.

Mexico's consular ID card is not secure and verifiable.

Mexico has issued the matricula consular since 1870 to its nationals living abroad in case they had need of consular assistance. It's purpose and use was totally benign and of no concern to any host country, including the United States.

But after 9/11, our tolerance for permitting illegal aliens to reside in the U.S. abated considerably, coupled with a new-found determination to increase the reliability of U.S.-issued identification documents. This environment made it likely that life would become more difficult for millions of Mexican citizens residing here illegally. But, Mexico needs them to continue to live and work here and send a large portion of their earnings back home. Remittances to Mexico totaled $10 billion in 2002 - money that has become essential to its faltering economy.

So Mexico decided to try to win widespread acceptance of the matricula consular as a substitute for U.S.-issued identification. To accomplish this it had to convince local, state and federal government agencies and U.S. business entities that the matricula is a secure identity document.

The face of the matricula was redesigned to make it bilingual and to include a local U.S. address. Recognizing that America wanted more secure identity documents, Mexico added several features to prevent counterfeiting. However, my research revealed that while those counterfeiting safeguards certainly improve the card's reliability, the matricula is not a secure identity document.

The goal of a secure ID card is one person, one identity, one card. The matricula does not meet the latter two standards.

Breeder documents used to obtain the consular ID are not authenticated.

To be truly secure, so-called breeder documents used to obtain an ID must be matched against some other data that corroborates the information.

A Mexican birth certificate is the principal document being used to obtain a matricula. Press reports indicate that it or other documents are being crosschecked against computerized records in Mexico. They are not.

The breeder documents are not being electronically scanned at the Mexican consulates that issue matriculas. Instead, paper files are kept. So, there is no computerized data to crosscheck anything with in Mexico.

Also, the manner in which the Mexican consular cards are issued basically guarantees that no authentication will take place. Matriculas are issued on a same-day basis, often from remote locations with no sophisticated communications equipment. For example, in April, the Chicago-based Mexican consulate issued 1,500 matriculas in only two days at the offices of the Wisconsin Hispanic Scholarship Foundation.

To authenticate breeder documents in an on-line, real time environment, the following would be needed:

- dedicated data lines and multiple layers of communications security

- almost instantaneous confirmation or declination of the documents

- sophisticated interface programming

- communications technology and support at each consulate

The price tag would easily be in the tens of millions of dollars. What is really happening is that Mexico is relying on staff members in the 47 consulate offices to visually authenticate the documents.

Safeguards not in place to prevent multiple issuance of matricula to one individual.

Without safeguards to prevent multiple issuance, the matricula also fails to meet the standard to insure only one card for one person.

Concurrent with the issuance of each new matricula, a digital file of the photograph, signature and data elements is created. That file needs to be transmitted either to a central database in Mexico or on some networked basis to all the other 47 consulates to insure that no more than one card has been issued to that one person.

In its discussions with law enforcement and motor vehicle officials, Mexico has indicated it was building this network. But it it's not ready yet. Everyone seems to think it will become a reality and it's just a matter of time. But in this case, timing is everything.

Well over one million matriculas issued before 2002 are still valid and in circulation. They have no security features whatsoever. Mexico issued over one million of the improved matriculas in 2002, with no system in place to authenticate breeder documents or safeguard against duplicate issuance.

Fraud is occurring. To use just one example, the INS in Denver arrested a man who was carrying three different matriculas. All had his photograph, but three different names.

Underlying identity data of matricula holders belongs to Mexico, not the U.S.

Beyond normal concerns related to issuance of any secure and verifiable identification card is the troubling problem that all of the data collected to issue the matricula is owned and controlled by Mexico.

There is the possibility of graft within Mexico's 47 consulate offices. No country is immune from corrupt employees who sell identity documents for cash. But in Mexico corruption is endemic and is common throughout the government. Low-paid consular staff might succumb to bribes and provide matriculas to OTMs (Other Than Mexicans) engaged in drug or human smuggling or terror financing activities. These employees would be covered by diplomatic immunity.

Finally, there is the profound problem that only Mexico has access to the breeder documents used to obtain the matrticula and some supplementary information Mexico requires that is not displayed on the card itself. This renders U.S. law enforcement agencies impotent to conduct a thorough background investigation if a Mexican national whose only identification is a matricula card commits a serious crime while in America. Contrast this to the situation after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the U.S. was able to assemble significant information about the hijackers because each had to provide information on a U.S. visa and their entrance and exits from the country were recorded by customs officials.

Matricula blurs the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants.

Mexico's strategy is to win acceptance for the matricula through a grassroots lobbying campaign at the local and state level. These efforts have borne fruit. This month Mexico announced that the matricula is now accepted by 402 localities, 32 counties, 122 financial institutions and 908 law enforcement offices.

Whenever challenged about the propriety of these lobbying activities, Mexico repeatedly emphasizes that a matricula is simply an identity card and does not change anyone's immigration status. Thankfully, that is true -- but it comes close to achieving the functional equivalent.

The matricula is changing the lives of undocumented Mexicans, making it far more likely that they can remain here undetected and receive a type of immunity -- not just from their illegal presence but for crimes committed on American soil. In localities where the matricula is accepted, it:

- has reduced the chances that illegal Mexican aliens will be arrested, jailed or deported

- given them entree to mainstream banking services

- provided access to city and state services and privileges, including in-state tuition rates denied to military families posted temporarily in a state.

- in some states gained them access to exactly the same driver's licenses as those carried by American citizens.

Mexico did not confer those privileges - local governments and entities within the United States did.

Matricula has become a badge of protection for Mexican illegals.

Local police in communities with a large number of Mexican illegal aliens have been willing to accept the matricula because some identification is better than none. The ground rules seem to be that no arrests will be made for minor infractions. This means that no background checks are run. No fingerprints are taken. No criminal databases are checked.

For Mexican citizens who posses one, the matricula has become a shield that hides any past criminal activity. But criminality is rampant in Mexico and, inevitably crosses our porous border. This is particularly true for drug traffickers, but also for money launderers and human smugglers, who have recently been linked to organized crime in Mexico. Given the free pass that local police are giving to matricula holders, it is highly likely that Mexican criminals, irrespective of their legal status, obtain one from their consulate office.

Mexican illegals also routinely commit crimes related to their illegal status. These include fraudulently obtaining U.S. birth certificates, Social Security numbers and driver's licenses; engaging in sham marriages and other strategems to obtain legal status; using fake U.S. immigration documents to receive government benefits; repeatedly crossing our border without permission, etc.

Some local police believe it is not their job to enforce federal immigration law. But for the police to ignore federal immigration law is tantamount to subverting it. Foreign residents living here lawfully have U.S.-issued documents. If in accepting the matricula, an identity document needed only by illegal aliens, local police are failing to conduct background checks, they are abdicating their law enforcement responsibilities and putting their community at risk.

This point was called into stark relief last month when Eugene, Oregon police stopped a Mexican national for a traffic infraction. A background check revealed that he had a criminal history including arrests and convictions for drugs, burglary, kidnapping and assault. He also was on the Bureau of Immigration and Custom Enforcement's most wanted criminal aliens list, having absconded after being ordered deported. Presumably, he would not have been captured by any of the 908 local law enforcement offices that are accepting the matricula.

A driver's license serves as our domestic passport.

All illegal aliens prize a license because it is the most widely accepted identity document in America.

It is an unfortunate reality that in many communities, a substantial percentage of the population is Mexican illegals. This makes it difficult for elected local and state officials to ignore entreaties that illegals need driver's licenses to get to work in order to support their families. It is a topic that has occupied many state capitals in the last two years. Twelve states currently accept the matricula as identification to obtain a license. But efforts are unceasing to increase that number.

In a positive sign, in May the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, with representatives from all 50 states, after careful study made a decision that it was premature to accept the matricula as part of its list of documents recommended for use by Department of Motor Vehicle employees.

It is concerned that the matricula lacks standardized issuance procedures, uniform security features and a secure database for verification purposes. In addition, AAMVA endorsed a standard that no foreign documents other than passports, in conjunction with proper immigration documents, be used to validate legal presence.

Contrast the responsible stand of AAMVA to protect the security of driver's licenses with that of a U.S. government agency --the Internal Revenue Service. Most states that accept the matricula as ID for a driver's license do so because the state also allows the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to serve as a substitute for a Social Security number.

IRS knows the ITIN is unverified but has not stopped its usage as identification.

As background, in 1996 the IRS, a division of the Treasury Department, began issuing ITINS as a way to encourage illegals, who are not eligible for Social Security cards, to comply with U.S. tax laws. In its publications, website and forms, the IRS makes clear that the ITIN is for tax purposes only. Perhaps because of its perceived limited purpose as a tax tracking number, the IRS made little or no effort to authenticate the documents presented by foreign nationals to obtain the ITIN.

This laxness led to a stampede of U.S. illegal residents from nations all around the world applying for ITINs. The IRS has issued 6 million ITINs since 1996, but, strangely, only 2 million were used for the purpose of filing U.S. tax returns. It is assumed that individuals who receive an ITIN and do not file taxes are using it as official U.S. government identification to obtain bank accounts, government services and - ominously - driver's licenses.

Belatedly, at the end of 2002 both the Treasury Department and the IRS threw up strong warning signals that the ITIN cannot - or should not - be accepted as an identification document. Treasury said in its report to Congress on the USA PATRIOT Act that the the IRS does not employ rigorous identification verification procedures. Similarly, the IRS announced that as of April 15, 2003 it would require more identity documentation from ITIN applicants, including proof of their alien status.

In response to a question this week, an IRS spokesman said: The ITIN was created solely for tax administration purposes. The ITIN was never intended to be a supplemental identification document for purposes other than filing a tax return. However, the IRS has issued no public statement confirming that the foreign documents used to obtain an ITIN are not authenticated and, therefore, the ITIN is not a reliable identification document. Such a statement would lead state motor vehicle bureaus to exclude the ITIN from their list of acceptable documents. It is highly unlikely that illegal residents would be able to obtain a driver's license in any state based solely on possession of a foreign government-issued consular card.

The Treasury Department has tacitly encouraged banks to accept the matricula.

A relatively small number - 122 out of over 9,000 federally-insured financial institutions - are accepting matriculas to open accounts. Even this small number is a remarkable occurrence, as all legitimate financial institutions are regulated and must meet guidelines set by their regulators to know your customer.

It appears that banks are accepting the matricula consular because Mexico requested the State and Treasury Departments help to help find ways to reduce the cost of remitting money to Mexico. It also was interested in U.S. financial institutions undertaking a program to bank the unbanked. Since Mexican illegals possess none of the usually accepted ID documents, the Treasury Department gave its tacit approval for financial institutions to accept the matricula instead.

In fact, it did so in a report to Congress dealing with the secure identification requirments mandated by the USA PATRIOT Act, where it said the proposed regulations do not discourage bank acceptance of the matricula consular identity card that is being issued by the Mexican government to immigrants.

This is ironic as Mexican banks do not hold the matricula in high regard as an identity document. No major bank headquarters in Mexico lists the matricula consular among the several official identification documents they accept to start accounts. In fact, according to a Mexican government press release, as of the end of 2002, the matricula was being accepted as an identity document for any purpose in only 10 of Mexico's 33 states.

Especially in the context of the PATRIOT Act and our focus on homeland security, it is difficult to comprehend why Treasury would give comfort to an identity card being offered by a single foreign government, as it could be predicted that other foreign governments would demand the same treatment.

Acceptance of foreign government consular cards has profound implications for U.S. immigration policy and homeland security.

The proliferation and acceptance of foreign government consular cards as a substitute for U.S.-issued identification endangers our homeland security. In addition to Mexico, the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, Poland, Peru and El Salvador have begun or are considering issuing cards of their own. More countries could follow, including some that the U.S. believes have been harboring terrorists.

Public opinion polls for decades have shown that while the American public supports legal immigration, it is opposed to illegal immigration. Obviously, the events of 9/11 only strengthened the intensity of these opinions.

The reason why government want acceptance of their consular cards is to make it easier for their foreign nationals residing illegally in the U.S. to come out of the shadows. It is in these governments interest for their illegals to remain in the U.S. and remit money back to their home countries.

It is in America's interest to control our borders and enforce our immigration laws. Accepting a less than secure identity card from any country further erodes our ability and incentive to control which foreign nationals can enter and live permanently in the U.S. It has profound implications for U.S. immigration policy and our homeland security.