The hour was early, the high desert air was fall-frosty, and the coffee was, well, truly horrible. I'd arrived for my volunteer shift at a Catholic church in the western Colorado town of Delta, and I had a very bad feeling.


Five hundred people were already waiting on the sidewalk outside, sipping the acrid coffee, shifting their feet, and talking quietly in Spanish. Most had been in line for hours, and all were hoping to get a matricula - a personal identification card, issued by the Mexican Foreign Ministry, that's accepted by a growing number of banks, libraries, and police departments here in the United States. The matricula doesn't deliver citizenship, but it reduces the danger of deportation, and the people in line were just about steaming with longing for it.


I worked my way towards the door, nodding hellos and wondering if anyone had expected a crowd like this. Inside, staffers from the Mexican consulate in Denver were preparing for the worst, setting up row after row of folding chairs. The Mexican official in charge called together the volunteers and quickly listed the matricula requirements: A birth certificate, some form of Mexican identification, proof that the applicant had been living in the United States for six months or more, and $29.


Then, without further ceremony, the church door opened and a sort of muted chaos began.


My job - and don't ask me how I got roped into this - was to explain to the people in line that it was going to be at least another hour until they could get through the door. If they weren't already holding an index card with a number on it, I had to tell them they might not get in at all. If they couldn't afford to take time off and buy gas for the five-hour trip to the consulate's permanent office in Denver, they'd have to wait a year for another chance.


This was not, as you might imagine, a fun job. Every time I walked out on the sidewalk, people gathered around me as if I were an oracle, and I felt ridiculous. Every once in a while, I'd say "Good luck," which I meant more sincerely than anything else I said that day. But it came out sounding sarcastic, and I got sarcastic laughs in return.


These days, there are similar lines of longing all over the Western United States. Though the disappointments are deep, the matriculas represent something hopeful. This is a kind of grassroots amnesty program, a temporary but surprisingly effective solution to the international deadlock over U.S. immigration policy.


The matriculas have been around for years, but last year, the Mexican Foreign Ministry started pressing businesses and local governments to accept the cards as valid identification. At last count, reports the Arizona Daily Star, 66 U.S. banks and 801 U.S. police departments have recognized the card, and Mexican consulates expect to issue a million cards just this year.


For banks, matriculas represent new business. For police and other local officials, they're a way to acknowledge the reality of the West. The cards help them communicate with tens of thousands of new residents who, until recently, had been understandably wary of anyone in uniform. Cardholders can now report crimes and do business with their local governments without fear, a shift that should benefit everyone.


Some of my fellow environmentalists say population control is a national issue. They say that in order to protect the stupendous natural diversity of the Western United States, we have to not only control the size of our own families, but also tighten the border to our south. They say we should turn away these new arrivals, not offer them quasi-official recognition.


I've thought hard about this, and I can't agree. I can't say I deserve the many benefits of living here more than the people in line do. Immigrants from Mexico I've talked to have worked hard to get here, and work as hard or harder to stay here. If productive, useful work makes a worthy citizen, most of the people on the sidewalk have proved themselves many times over. The matr’culas give all of us one way to recognize this.


The people waiting for matriculas aren't numbers. They're people who tell jokes and throw parties and mourn tragedies pretty much like I do. Many say they wish they could return home and still provide for their families. For now, they can't. So for now, they'll keep standing in line, trying to be good citizens in this unfamiliar place - and I'll keep standing at the church door, trying my best to hold it open.


Former HCN senior editor Michelle Nijhuis is a freelance writer in Paonia, Colorado.