SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of Mexican nationals have been lining up around the block outside their consulate to get identification cards after the city became the first in the nation to officially accept the consular IDs as legal documents.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed the resolution unanimously last month, and Mayor Willie Brown signed it Tuesday, prompting an immediate and enthusiastic response among Mexican immigrants. Each day since, they’ve lined up by the hundreds to get documented.
The cards — which have a photograph, legal address, birthplace and signature — won’t help immigrants with the federal or state governments, but inside the city of San Francisco, they promise to make life easier in a number of ways.
The plan was sponsored by Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, a former public defender who saw a need for some type of ID card for non-citizens. He said police were picking up immigrants on minor offenses and sometimes holding them for days simply because they lacked proper identification.
The card also reduces the hassle and expense of wiring money to family members in other countries. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank accepts it, allowing non-citizens to set up bank accounts and distribute ATM cards to family members who can withdraw funds in Mexico without paying high fees.
But it won’t help immigrants who aren’t complying with Immigration and Naturalization Service rules, agency spokeswoman Sharon Rummery said.
“All the matricula consular does is identify you of a citizen of Mexico. That’s all you can expect from it,” she said. “If you’re out of status and you get that you’re still out of status.”
Mexican consulates in the U.S. have been issuing consular IDs for some 20 years. Whether to recognize these cards has been a decision made locally by police in cities across the United States. San Francisco is the first to make such recognition a matter of city law, said Consul General Georgina Lagos, Mexico’s top representative in Northern California.
“The consular ID does not have any intrinsic benefit per se; the benefit it has is the recognition or validity authorities will give to it,” said Lagos, who worked for months to develop a screening process, including fingerprints, and a tough-to-fake card that satisfies San Francisco police.
Other countries’ consulates in San Francisco have shown interest in the cards, and Lagos said she’s working with other cities and counties in Northern California to expand the idea.
“Before there was only an informal agreement between the consulate and the police or sheriff’s department. Now it no longer will be left at the authorities’ discretion,” said Lagos.
Many of the immigrants in line Tuesday were confused about just what they would be able to do with the cards. Many, like Sotero Rosas, mistakenly thought it would help otherwise undocumented immigrants get California drivers’ licenses or car insurance.
“I am not really aware of the benefits but if they are saying it will be good I have nothing to lose,” said Rosas, who came to the San Francisco Bay area from Veracruz, Mexico, two years ago, and was wearing a neck collar after a car accident.
Francisco Herrera, also from Veracruz, brought his wife and two children to the consulate for the same reasons. A construction worker who has lived in the Bay Area for six years, he said neither he nor his wife have proper U.S. documentation.
Sandoval said it’s important for users to understand the card is only valid in San Francisco and is not a substitute for a driver’s license or a passport necessary to fly or cross borders.
Some advocates of limiting immigration have expressed concern that San Francisco’s new policy will encourage illegal immigration. Rick Oltman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform told the San Francisco Chronicle that police should arrest its bearers as illegal immigrants.
But San Francisco police say they have no duty to enforce federal laws, and Lagos said it’s simply the consulate’s duty to protect its nationals, regardless of their legal status in the United States.
Furthermore, the card has more security measures — and is more useful — than other forms of ID, she said. It not only helps illegal immigrants, but also people with valid visas.
“This is the credential the U.S. State Department gave me,” said Lagos showing her diplomatic credential “As you can see it does not have a digital photo, it is too big to fit in my wallet, it is easy to forge and banks don’t accept it.”
Sandoval hopes San Francisco will serve as a model for other cities and possibly to Gov. Gray Davis whom he hopes will drop the proof of citizenship requirement necessary to get a California driver’s license.
“We’re looking at broader issues like NAFTA and the integration of two societies,” Sandoval said. “In Europe, it would not make sense if a Spaniard went to France and the French would not accept his ID card.”