Posted on October 19, 2004

Prop. 200-Style System Already Law In Mexico

Chris Hawley, Arizona Republic, Oct. 19

MEXICO CITY — The provisions of Proposition 200 have stirred up a storm of debate in Arizona. But here in Mexico, they’re already the law.

Arizona’s contentious ballot proposal would require voters to show proof of their U.S. citizenship when registering to vote and proof of their legal residency when applying for government benefits.

In Mexico, it has been that way for years. Only in hospitals are Mexico’s laws more lenient about checking immigration documents.

To see if the requirements are being enforced, a Republic reporter (a U.S. citizen with legal residency in Mexico), went to six public agencies and two schools in Mexico City to inquire about services and registering to vote.

Almost every official asked to see proof of Mexican citizenship or an FM3 visa, the document that allows a person to live in Mexico. Often, it was the first question asked.

“Every agency has its own regulations, but generally, that’s the rule. To receive these government services, you have to prove you are in the country legally,” said Victoria Hernández, a spokeswoman for the Mexican Secretariat of Government, which oversees immigration.

Those same requirements have set off a furious debate in Arizona.

Opponents of Proposition 200, which will be on the Nov. 2 ballot, say it will turn state employees into immigration agents, build a culture of fear in government offices and create a public health risk by discouraging undocumented immigrants from seeking medical care.

Supporters say the measure will protect the election process and cut expenses by keeping undocumented immigrants from seeking benefits.

The Mexican government has been mostly silent on the issue. In one of the few public statements about Proposition 200, Mexico’s undersecretary of foreign affairs for North America, Geronimo Gutiérrez, would say only that the Foreign Ministry “remains very attentive to how this measure is developing.”

The Mexican media, usually strident on immigrant issues, has also mostly ignored Proposition 200.

Registering to vote

Under the Proposition 200 rules, all Arizonans would have to show proof of U.S. citizenship when registering to vote. That could be a birth certificate, a U.S. passport, an Arizona driver’s license issued after 1996, a Bureau of Indian Affairs card or a tribal treaty card number. Voters would also have to show a photo ID at the polls.

Currently, Arizona voters can register through the mail or online. The application has to include either their Arizona driver’s license numbers or the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.

In Mexico, voter registration is handled by a nationwide agency, the Federal Elections Institute. Voters are issued cards with their photos and fingerprints when they register, and the cards must be shown at the polls. Poll workers use ultraviolet lights to check security codes printed on the cards.

Mexicans have to register in person at the institute’s offices, and they must present one of 19 documents proving Mexican citizenship. The documents range from a birth certificate to a sworn statement by two registered voters.

When the Republic reporter asked about registering at an institute office in Mexico City, he was immediately asked if he was a Mexican citizen, and then told he would have to present naturalization papers.

Medical care

Proposition 200 also requires state and local workers in Arizona to check the immigration status of anyone applying for public benefits. If they fail to notify federal officials of violations, they could be punished with four months in jail and a $750 fine.

Opponents of the measure are most worried about its effect on how health care is administered in Arizona.

In Mexico, access to health care is guaranteed in Article 2 of the constitution. Officially, at least, the country is more lenient than the United States in caring for poor people and undocumented immigrants.

Foreigners who are legal residents have unlimited use of any federal hospital or clinic for an annual fee of $86 and $225 per family, depending on the age of family members. Births and maternity care are free after one year in the program. Foreigners can also join the government’s disability insurance program for about $400 a year.

But officials at the Mexican Social Security Institute, which runs those programs, are still strict about visas. The reporter was told he would have to present his FM3 to enroll.

The main difference between Arizona and Mexico is in how undocumented emergency-room patients are handled after they are in stable condition.

In both places, emergency rooms must treat anyone, legal resident or not.

In Arizona, the state Medicaid program, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, pays the hospital bills for uninsured, undocumented immigrants until they are stabilized, spokesman Frank Lopez said. After that, patients continue to be billed, but if they can’t pay, the hospital usually picks up the tab.

Arizona hospitals are afraid Proposition 200 will make patients fearful of filling out the state paperwork, Lopez said. If that happens, hospitals will be stuck with the bill for emergency care, he said.

About 15,000 undocumented immigrants are treated in Arizona hospitals each year, Lopez said.

In Mexico, poor patients are stabilized in an emergency room, then usually transferred to a state hospital, said Jose González Díaz, a spokesman for the Mexican Health Secretariat. The state hospital charges them a negligible fee. If they prove they can’t pay, the fees are waived.

At no time are patients asked to prove they are legal residents, González said.

“There’s no such requirement,” he said. “Health care is open to anyone here.”

Enrolling in school

As in Arizona, foreigners who want to enroll their children in Mexican public schools do not have to show proof they are legal residents, said Lizbeth Diego, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Secretariat. They do, however, have to show evidence they have a fixed residence in Mexico, like a utility bill.

But there seems to be confusion about the requirements at the school level: An elementary school and a high school visited by the Republic reporter both told him a valid visa would be needed to enroll a child from abroad.

In Arizona, that’s a no-no. Federal law bars schools from asking about a student’s citizenship or immigration status, said Andrea M. Esquer, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.

Esquer said that the agency’s lawyers are studying how Proposition 200 might affect that but that they cannot issue an opinion unless the measure is passed.

Does it matter?

The Republic reporter was also asked for his FM3 visa when applying for a Mexican driver’s license.

Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Division likewise demands proof of lawful residency, in the form of a resident alien card, a passport with visa, a U.S. birth certificate or 15 other types of what it calls “primary” identification.

At the Mexico City Job Bank, a program that matches employers and job-seekers, a sign on the door said participants would have to bring their birth certificates, their federal identification numbers and two copies of their voter registration cards. But when the reporter said he was a foreigner, the clerk told him to “just bring whatever documents you have.”

Arizona’s different

No documents at all were needed to attend a free, government-run seminar titled “How To Organize a Successful Business.”

Opponents of Proposition 200 say Mexico’s rules are irrelevant. The real issue, they say, is whether Arizonans should be constantly required to prove their citizenship.

“Mexicans may not mind carrying around identification all the time, but in the United States, a lot of people do,” said Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general and head of Arizonans for Real Immigration Reform.

Indeed, life in Mexico does require more red tape.

To open a bank account, the reporter had to sign 29 documents and submit utility bills, and a bank inspector visited his home to confirm he lived there. One car rental agency required three personal references and called another business to check his identity and credit.

All payments to the government, such as driver’s license fees, have to be paid in person at banks using special tax forms. Filing a police report is such a chore that most crimes are never reported.

In Arizona, the Proposition 200 requirements are a “slippery slope” that could lead to harassment and more bureaucracy in people’s lives, Woods said.

“They do a lot of things in Mexico that we don’t do here,” he said. “If we wanted to live like Mexicans, we would move there.”