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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 U.S. without authorization turned to a little-known Mexican government identity document called the matrícula consular. The Mexican Consular 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 Mexican Consular ID Cards 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 Mexican Consular ID Cards programs subvert U.S. policy and promote unauthorized immigration.

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 Mexican Consular ID Cards 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 Mexican Consular ID Cards 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 oneself.
  • 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.
  • Proponents suggest that the matrículas are comparable, in terms of security, to U.S. state-issued driver licenses. Sophisticated tamper-proof holograms make the cards extremely difficult to forge or modify.
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 U.S. 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.
  • •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 police.
    •The matrículas make it easier to identify dead or unconscious people.
    •Local police are generally not responsible for immigration enforcement, so immigration status is irrelevant for their purposes.
  • Other Impacts of the Matrícula

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 U.S.


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. 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 U.S.
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 U.S. governments and businesses and in raising awareness among immigrants.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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:


The impact of consular ID cards in the United States, while far-reaching, is still unclear.

Many on both sides see the cards as a symptom of inconsistent immigration policies but disagree on the solution.

The debate over consular IDs continues, affecting a broad spectrum of U.S. policy.


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, D.C.

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. Billions in Motion: Latino Immigrants, Remittances and Banking. Washington: Pew Hispanic Center.

United Nations. 2002. International Migration Report: 2002.

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