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Napa approves Mexican ID with backing of chamber, police

Critics call move a step toward amnesty for illegal immigrants

Thursday, June 5, 2003

By KEVIN COURTNEY Register Staff Writer

With strong community support, the Napa City Council voted Tuesday to have the city accept Mexican identification cards from people who may be in the U.S. illegally.

Napa joins a vanguard of cities, counties and businesses nationally that want to make it easier for Mexican nationals to conduct their lives in a country where a photo ID is a necessity.

Police Chief Dan Monez said the laminated, high-security, photo IDs would help police identify people who otherwise resort to fake IDs or carry nothing.

"Secondly, it's about human dignity and respect," Monez said. "These hard working members of our community deserve to be respected as fellow human beings."

Supporters presented signatures of support from nearly 1,200 local residents. The Napa Chamber of Commerce and leaders of Napa Valley College and the Napa Valley Unified School System also endorsed the proposal.

Napa's Hispanic population more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, from 9,425 to 19,475, according to the federal census. Twenty-seven percent of residents -- more than one in four -- are Hispanic.

Because illegal residents are hard to count, the true figure is probably closer to one third, the vast majority from Mexico, Monez said.

The cards, called matricula consular, are issued by Mexican consulates in the U.S. to people who can prove Mexican birth and U.S. residency of six months or more.

While the cards allow someone to prove who they are, they do not qualify carriers for government benefits, change their legal status or prevent arrest by federal immigration authorities, advocates said.

Nationally, critics have attacked the Mexican IDs as a step toward amnesty for illegal aliens.

At Tuesday's council hearing, Tony Diaz, a Napa real estate agent who was born in Mexico, worried that terrorists might get hold of the cards. "How can we trust a government that has corruption," he said of Mexico.

Monez countered that no ID was perfect. "It's as secure as anything can be and it's certainly better than what we have now, which is nothing," he said.

Napa is following the lead of the Calistoga City Council, which endorsed the Mexican ID in January. The card will help Mexican workers open bank accounts and feel confident about reporting crimes to police, the Calistoga council said.

After first voicing support for the matricula consular in March, Monez said local comment had been almost exclusively positive. However, the national movement for Mexican IDs has opposition.

Opponents are offended that people in the country illegally are being catered to, not arrested. Some assert that the cards violate federal law.

After researching the subject, City Attorney Tom Brown said Napa could legally accept Mexican IDs or not.

As a matter of federal law, Monez said local police cannot use a person's undocumented status for detention or questioning. It's a federal matter, he said.

Monez said he received angry e-mails believed to be from out of county. One called him a "despicable traitorous jackass." Another told him to go back to Mexico. Monez is of Portuguese ancestry.

Some three dozen people turned out to support the cards at the Napa council's afternoon session, including Georgina Lagos, Mexican consul general in San Francisco.

The cards would allow Mexican nationals to prove age in a bar and gain visitation privileges in hospitals, Lagos said. It's a way to make their lives "a little bit easier," she said.

The council supported the cards on a unanimous vote, with Councilman David Crawford saying "the economy of Napa can't run without Mexican workers. We may have illegal workers, but they're all invited -- by employers and by us into our yards."

Councilman Kevin Block said Anglo and Latino communities needed to do more to work together. Hopefully, the matricula consular will be the first of many issues that the council will address, he said.

"This is a statement of human dignity we're saying here today," Mayor Ed Henderson said.

Councilman Harry Martin wished the hearing had been scheduled for the evening when a broader audience could have attended or watched on cable TV.

When the community hears of the Mexican IDs, "people will come out and start screaming," he predicted.

No one expressed outright opposition to the cards at the council's afternoon hearing. Teresa Foster, a local immigration specialist, had organized a line-up of speakers to endorse the cards.

Some three dozen Latinos attended the council meeting. This was the biggest turnout since the summer of 2001 when a large crowd of Latinos came to protest conditions in low-income apartments.

"The least we can do is give them an identity," said Frances Ortiz Chavez, vice president of the Napa County Hispanic Network. Latinos work the Napa Valley's most "labor-intensive jobs," she said.

"It grants a measure of dignity to people who otherwise live in society's shadows," said Hope Lugo, who formerly ran social service agencies in Napa.

Father Oscar Diaz of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church said he had parishioners for whom the card would help cement their place in the community. As things now stand, undocumented residents are using a host of fake IDs that hide who they are, he said.

Rhonda Slota, principal of the Napa Valley Adult School, said she had 2,000 adults enrolled in English As A Second Language classes. "It's quite clear to us a large number of our students aren't legal citizens, but they are here working," she said.

Students use fraudulent IDs, making record-keeping difficult, Slota said. Mexican IDs could change that, she said.

The state Assembly has passed a bill that would require all cities and counties to honor Mexican ID cards. The measure, AB 522, has not yet been heard by the senate.

According to the Sacramento Bee, more than 100 California law enforcement agencies accept the matricula consular, as do three state agencies.

Among the cities and counties that accept it are Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland. Many financial institutions also recognize it.

On Wednesday, the state Senate approved a bill that would let illegal immigrants earn driver's licenses -- a measure similar to one vetoed last year by Gov. Gray Davis.

Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, the bill's author, said the measure will encourage more drivers to get insurance because an auto policy is needed to get a license. Illegal immigrants make up some of the state's 2 million uninsured drivers.

He also noted the measure would improve public safety because the bill will require those drivers to be fingerprinted.

The measure was sent to the Assembly on a 24-14 vote.

Several Republicans spoke against the measure, including Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, who said the bill's goal is to legitimize illegal immigration. He said state law already recognizes foreign licenses and does not need to be changed.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Kevin Courtney can be reached at 256-2217 or at kcourtney@napanews.com