By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
They are not get-out-of-jail cards, nor can they be used by illegal immigrants as driver’s licenses or as a means to obtain legal U.S. residency.
They are Mexican consular identification cards, and now a valid form of ID in the eyes of Sonoma County law enforcement officials. And for Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver and Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, that’s all they are.
“It’s not about immigration, it’s about identification,” said Schwedhelm, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association.
“Our goal is to be reasonably certain that the person being issued a citation is the person named on the citation,” he said.
And if the person is accused of committing a crime that warrants arrest and booking in jail, that’s where he or she is headed, he said, whether or not they have a consular ID.
For some, the decision by the chiefs to accept Mexican consular IDs represents a violation of the rule of law and an official acceptance of the growing presence of illegal immigrants. But police said it is the most sensible way to play the hand dealt to them by ineffective federal lawmakers who have failed to address issues surrounding illegal immigration.
The chiefs association in October changed its countywide policy for dealing with undocumented immigrants, saying officers “should accept matricular identification (ID) cards issued by the Mexican Consulate as valid ID” unless there’s reason to believe they are fake or have been tampered with.
The decision could keep some illegal immigrants from going to jail for an offense that in most cases would result in a citation. Police in California can arrest drivers who cannot provide valid identification.
In jail, the immigrants likely would be flagged by immigration officials under a federal program known as Secure Communities.
The practice of booking immigrants who did not have valid IDs had become a conflict between police and the local immigrant community, often leading to accusations of racial profiling and quiet cooperation with federal immigration officials.
Police officials said previous consular IDs were not reliable enough to be considered a valid form of ID. But they said the new cards are reliable.
Petaluma Police Chief Dan Fish said the current consular card offers “our first chance at some identification method for some of these folks that would be reliable, above and beyond the previous methods that we’ve ever encountered.”
The Mexican consular ID, or matricula consular as it is known in Spanish, is essentially a form of registration for Mexican nationals living within the jurisdiction of a particular consulate office.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, attempts were made by Mexico to make the cards a more secure form of ID, said Adriana Gonzalez, consul for legal affairs at the San Francisco Consulate, which includes Sonoma County in its jurisdiction.
The most significant security measures have been implemented since 2005, she said. These include the use of a national database that can track consular IDs issued from consulate offices in other states. The cards also include 20 different “security features,” including holograms, similar to other forms of ID, such as passports.
Still some believe the consular IDs are still not reliable.
Jon Feere, a legal policy analyst for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, maintains that a Mexican consular card is not a valid form of ID. Feere, a former Petaluma resident, cited 2003 testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims by Steven McCraw, a former assistant director of the FBI’s office of intelligence.
At the time, McCraw raised a number of problems that he said made consular IDs unreliable. He said Mexico “issues the card to anyone who can produce a Mexican birth certificate and one other form of identity, including documents of very low reliability.”
“I think the FBI’s testimony is still quite accurate,” Feere said in an email. “The card and the administration of it hasn’t changed much, despite Mexico’s claims.”
Gonzalez said applicants must apply for and receive consular IDs in person. She said the process is similar to that of obtaining a Mexican passport.
Weaver, the Sebastopol police chief, said most people in his city have reacted positively to the policy change. He said he’s received only two phone calls from opponents.
He said the callers mistakenly thought police were allowing undocumented immigrants to drive without a California driver’s license. He said they also “felt that this was undermining efforts to remove people who are here illegally.”
Weaver conceded the new policy could result in fewer deportations.
“My job is not to enforce immigration law,” Weaver said. “We’re not trained in that, that’s not our duty and our responsibility. Our duty is to enforce state law.”
Law enforcement officials said nothing in the amended policy prevents them from cooperating with federal ICE agents in pursuing undocumented immigrants suspected of serious crimes. In fact, the protocol establishes procedures for such cooperation.
Efren Carrillo, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, called the change “the right thing to do.”
“I hope that the other chiefs in the county will follow suit,” he said. “This is really about being able to identify some people who live in our county; they work in our community, they live in our neighborhoods.”
After being asked by members of the immigrant community and their supporters to have another look at the cards, the chiefs association put together a delegation that went to the San Francisco Mexican Consulate in August to examine the cards and the application process.
The delegation included Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Dueñas, Petaluma Police Lt. Dave Sears, Sebastopol Police Lt. James Conner and Santa Rosa Police Capt. Hank Schreeder.
“We’re confident that these cards aren’t just given to anyone,” Schwedhelm said.
Fish, the Petaluma chief, said, “That’s not to say that they can’t be altered or forged, but so can a California driver’s license.”
Weaver said the chiefs association’s executive committee considered the change over the summer, and it was approved by association members in early October.
Police departments will set their own schedule for implementing the new rule, as resources allow. Smaller departments have fewer officers to train, Weaver said.
Thus far, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa police and the Sheriff’s Office have completed training. Other departments are following suit.
“We have some of our folks that have been trained,” Fish said. “Everybody knows that we’re accepting it.”