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Sham IDs supported, even in light of threat

Saturday, June 28, 2003

FBI questions Mexican ID card

Though local law enforcement agencies honor them, there are fears they could be used by terrorists or criminals.

The Orange County Register

WASHINGTON ­ Although the FBI is questioning the reliability of Mexican identification cards and says they could post a threat to national security, local law enforcement officials continue to support them, and the Mexican government has no plans to stop issuing them. A top FBI official this week told Congress that the FBI believes the cards are ripe for fraud and could fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals. But other federal agencies ­ such as the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security ­ are still reviewing the issue.

"They are not on the streets dealing with what we're dealing with every day," Santa Ana police Chief Paul Walters said of the FBI warning.

Walters says he understands the FBI's national perspective. But he quickly added that before his officers could rely on cards issued by the Mexican Consul to identify Mexican nationals, they were confronted every day with bogus documents available for a price on local street corners.

According to the Mexican Embassy, 1 million cards were issued to Mexican nationals in 2002 and 400,000 more have been issued since the beginning of this year. An estimated 60,000 are in circulation in Orange County.

"It is very important for us to highlight that the Mexican government has the right to issue the document," said Miguel Monterrubio, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Typically, illegal immigrants apply for these cards and use them to obtain bank accounts and in dealings with local law enforcement. In 13 states they can be used to obtain driver's licenses, but not in California. "Obviously, we're cut in the middle because in law enforcement we need to identify people and it's ... a way to assist us," Anaheim police Sgt. Rick Martinez said. "We have so many visitors that we deal with so many different forms of identification on a daily basis. ... This is just another form of identification." Martinez added that the cards have helped police because "in the past (people) have given us false names and they've caused problems."

While such cards have been available for more than 100 years, it's only been in the past couple of years that Mexico has added new security features, and local law enforcement agencies have begun to have more confidence in the cards. More than 908 local law enforcement agencies accept the card.

Before the more secure cards became available, Walters said, these same illegal immigrants would buy fake driver's licenses or Social Security cards and would be virtually untraceable in the community. Now, Walters said, the illegal-documents businesses have virtually disappeared.

In testimony this week before the House immigration subcommittee, Steve McCraw, assistant director of the FBI office of intelligence, said the cards that are issued are not backed up with a process to verify the true identity of the card holder.

Monterrubio said the Vincente Fox administration is in the process of creating the kind of database McCraw told the committee would be needed as a check on the veracity of documents Mexican nationals present as evidence of identity.

McCraw said the FBI is worried that once someone fraudulently gets the ID card, he or she could use it to obtain other documents, such as a driver's license.

"These criminal threats are significant," McCraw said. "But it is the terrorist threat presented by the Matricula Consular that is most worrisome."

McCraw said federal officials have discovered the cards in the possession of people from places other than Mexico, including at least one person of Middle Eastern descent.

"The ability of foreign nationals to use the Matricula Consular to create a well-documented but fictitious identity in the United States provides an opportunity for terrorists to move freely within the United States without triggering name-based match lists that are disseminated to local police officers," McCraw said.

Other federal agencies, such as the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, have not reached similar conclusions. But while the cards are being evaluated, they will not be accepted for identification at federal facilities or for identification at airports. "We're currently in the process of determining whether this will be considered a valid government identification card,'' said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.