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A House subcommittee has opened hearings into the validity and purpose of identification cards issued by Mexican consulates in the U.S., cards critics say are meant only to legitimize illegal aliens.

“In the past few months, increased attention has been directed to the law-enforcement and national-security implications of local acceptance of consular identification cards,” said Rep. John N. Hostettler, R-Ind., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims.

The identifications, often referred to as matricula consular cards, “have been issued by foreign governments to their nationals living abroad for 100 years,” Hostettler said in opening statements to the panel Thursday. “Historically, foreign governments have issued these cards to enable their citizens aboard to seek consular assistance when they needed help.

“Since early 2002,” Hostettler said, “[the] cards have served a new purpose. That is when the Mexican government redesigned their consular identification card … and began promoting it for local acceptance in the United States.”

In recent years, critics say, Mexico has begun issuing the cards to its nationals living in the U.S. as a way to legitimize migrants who are in the country illegally. But supporters disagree, claiming the cards don’t legalize immigrants but instead make it easier for them to function in American society.

Mexico has issued about 1.5 million of the cards, which cost $28, since 2002. Thus far, 402 cities and 32 counties have voted to accept the cards as valid ID. Also, 908 law-enforcement agencies nationwide accept the cards, as do 122 financial institutions.

Other nations are either issuing similar cards or are considering it. Guatemala has already begun issuing such cards to its citizens in the U.S.

In her statement to the panel, subcommittee member Rep. Linda Chavez, D-Calif., defended the cards.

“Contrary to what has been said, these cards do not ‘legalize’ the status of any immigrant, and they cannot be used to obtain any immigration or citizenship benefit,” she said. “Mexican consulates explain this to every applicant.”

And Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who also testified at the hearing and supported the cards, dismissed criticism of illegal immigration, calling it a fact of life in the U.S.

“I think we have a responsibility to say, ‘What are you going to do with them?’ They are here. They are working. They are working at the worst-paid, most exploitative jobs in our country. … Why not have people establish a bank account, know where they live and know what they’re doing with their money?” he said.

But Hostettler and other critics of the cards say they reward lawbreaking illegal immigrants by giving them a phony sense of belonging in a country where they are not legal residents. Also, critics say the cards are being misused and as such represent a danger to national security at a time when the country is attempting to root out terrorists.

“One of the main objections that has been raised against local acceptance of the cards is that such acceptance encourages illegal immigration,” Hostettler said. “With limited exceptions, all aliens who are legally present in the United States possess either U.S. government-issued cards or passports. …”

“The only use the matricula consular has as an identification card is that it identifies illegal aliens, and any U.S. institution that accepts the card is violating the federal law the prohibits ‘encouraging’ illegal aliens to remain in the country,” Craig Nelson, a spokesman for Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement, or FILE, told WorldNetDaily.

“The acceptance by U.S. institutions of foreign-issued consular cards is a violation of federal law, which forbids encouraging aliens to remain illegally in the country,” Nelson said.

Hostettler said the cards could pose “a law-enforcement and national-security risk” because they’re not “reliable or secure.”

The Indiana Republican also said Border Patrol officials have arrested illegal immigrants carrying multiple “valid” matriculas with the same picture but with different names.

“These arrestees included one known alien smuggler with an extensive criminal history, found in a house with 25 smugglees, who had seven matriculas in his possession, each bearing his picture and each in a different name,” said Hostettler.

Others on the panel agreed the cards presented a danger to American society.

“I don’t see any issue that is potentially as dangerous to our sovereignty and provides tremendous opportunity for terrorism in this country than this form of documentation,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif.

Mexican consul officials say they have been issuing newer, more secure cards in recent months.

“This card can help the American community and the police department to identify people,” Luis Miguel Ortiz-Haro, Mexican consul in Santa Ana, Calif., told the Orange County Register. “With the very large Mexican population we have here we need to know who people are.”

Financial institutions that also back use of the cards see them as a way to accommodate a growing Hispanic population, regardless how they came to America.

“We looked at the community and saw the Hispanic population had increased in big numbers, especially in the Los Angeles area,” Robert Aviles, a Bank of America vice president and banking center manager in Santa Ana, told the Register. “We looked at ways to help provide them services and start establishing a financial vehicle to guard their money.”

Nevertheless, resistance to the cards has been growing in recent months. Colorado became the first state to officially ban acceptance of the cards, a move that won praise from Republican state Senate President John Andrews.

“I’m very proud that Colorado this year became the first state to say no to these non-secure ID cards that ignore the difference between legal and illegal immigrants,” he told the Rocky Mountain News.

Reports said Utah was considering following Colorado’s lead.

As WorldNetDaily reported previously, the federal government may be ready to recognize the cards.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has blasted the Treasury Department for its endorsement of matricula consulars.

New department regulations that took effect May 30 include language that allows financial institutions to accept the cards.

“I am deeply troubled by the apparent acquiescence by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security in the Treasury Department’s actions in failing to execute the Patriot Act,” Tancredo said last month.

“Since only illegal aliens would need to carry such cards for identification purposes, or need them to open bank accounts, the regulations indicate the Treasury Department is out of step with the American people and A.W.O.L. in the battle to stem the epidemic of illegal immigration,” he said.

Hostettler said the Constitution grants Congress the power to establish naturalization rules, which include “the opportunity to regulate any document that would allow an alien to reside in the United States.”

“Given these facts,” he added, “it is incumbent upon this subcommittee to fully explore the impact of these foreign government efforts on U.S. law enforcement, and on our national security and sovereignty.”

Related stories:

Feds caving in to illegals?

Dual citizenship for Mexicans?

Document fraud imperils homeland

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