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 matrícula
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.
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 matricula
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.
matricula 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.
matricula 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
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 matrículas give all of us one way
to recognize this.
The people waiting for
matrículas 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