Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mexican ID

 We grow accustomed to all the red-tape paperwork while living in Mexico. But there is an interesting exception. Written into the Mexican Constitution, Article 11 tells us that all people have the right to enter the Republic, leave it, travel through its territory and change their domicile "without the need of a security card, passport, safe conduct pass, or any similar requirement."  The clause goes on to say that this rule is subordinate to rules that can be imposed by judicial, administrative, and health authorities on emigration, immigration, and pernicious foreigners residing in the country.  Yes, pernicious is the word used in the constitution. 

A Mexican's right not to carry an identification cards differs from most other Latin American countries where adult citizens are required to carry and produce on demand an identification card or in many cases a booklet identifying the citizen. 

I remember that while in high school in Colombia I carried a small, hardbound, many paged "cédula de extranjería" (foreigner's identification). My friends who were citizens carried a "cédula de identidad".  I've seen similar booklets in Guatemala with the identification information entered in elegant handwriting, authenticated by a national seal applied with a rubber stamp.

Because of Article 11, Mexican immigration authorities have had to come up with ways to differentiate between Mexican citizens and foreigners.  In most cases it's done by skin color, physical stereotypes, or by detecting regional accents. But that doesn't work with many Central Americans, especially Guatemalans.  Ethnically the state of Chiapas is virtually identical to Guatemala.  Until 1824 Chiapas was part of Guatemala. 

When in doubt immigration authorities resort to asking questions only Mexicans are able to answer. They’ll say "sing the national anthem."  Or use words that are particularly Mexican.  In a "good cop-bad cop" situation the good cop will offer the detainee a soft drink, along with a carefully structured question "would you like your coca with "popote" (Mexican word for straw)?" A Guatemalan, supposing popote is a seasoning, might reply "just a little" and fall right into the trap. 

Arriving one day in Tijuana on a flight from Mexico City, I passed through a line where a Mexican immigration officer was doing work for the U.S. Border Patrol. He was picking out undocumented Central Americans before they even got to the U.S. border.  When the man ahead of me was asked "where are you coming from?" he answered "Chiapas."  The officer came back with "what's the capital of Chiapas?"  I could see my fellow traveler stumbling over his answer and about to be caught, so I whispered "Tuxtla Gutierrez." He told the officer “Tuxtla Gutierrez” and was waved through. Phew!  It was interesting to see the officer respect the Constitution and let the man of dubious nationality proceed.  My 28-page FM-2 immigration booklet occupied his attention until the Guatemalan blended into the crowd.  I hope he made it.

Traveling without ID is one thing, but cashing a check is quite another.  Banks and other institutions need to verify a person’s identity.  In the United States a driver’s license has become the acceptable means of identification. My U.S. passport card was turned down as ID in a New York City pharmacy when buying cold medicine. Without an address printed on it there would be no way to track me down if I purchased too much Sudafed!  A drivers license is so ubiquitous in the US that state departments of motor vehicles also issue non-drivers identification -- and charge just as much for them as they do for a driver's license.

A driver's license is not accepted for bank transactions in Mexico.  Instead, a voter registration card has become the acceptable identification.  People from other countries may not even know where their voter's registration card is, but most Mexicans carry it with them in their wallet.  Known as their "IFE" (Federal Electoral Institute) card, it is a credit card-sized identifying document containing the citizen's full name, address, photo, gender, age, electoral code, polling booth number, thumb-print, and signature.  There’s also a magnetic strip on the back of the card with who-knows-what additional information.

In the 1980’s when the IFE first started issuing the current style card, acquisition was so simple it was scandalous.  To demonstrate the ease of requesting multiple fraudulent cards, a National University (UNAM) student wrote a term paper about procuring five different voter's registration cards delivered to her own address plus that of four friends.  Rather than being thanked for whistle-blowing, she was accused of a crime by the IFE.  Now the process is very secure. Banks will accept IFE cards dated as of 2012 as solid proof of both identity and address -- without requiring a recent utility bill a proof of address.    

As a bonus, since voting is both a right and responsibility, the IFE card is free.  The Constitution says there is no restriction on changing domicile, but for purposes of voting, one's address determines one's polling booth.  Fine print on the IFE card requires reporting an address change within thirty days. 

Using voters registration cards as identification is an unusual though subtle and effective way of complying with the Constitution.       

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