Durham's City Council took a symbolic stance on a sharply divisive issue Monday night when it passed a resolution endorsing the practice by the Durham Police Department to accept the Matricula Consular, the national Mexican identification card for non-residents, as valid identification during traffic stops and other police interaction. The resolution passed five to two, with Council members Eugene Brown and Howard Clement voting against it.
Whether the Council voted on the matter, the city's police department has actively been accepting the identification from Mexican nationals when stopping or questioning people suspected of criminal activity, said Police Chief Jose Lopez. The acceptance of the resolution (PDF) would not affect that practice, he added.
Lopez said a resolution from the Council would, however, "garner the trust" of Latino immigrants who currently might be reluctant to report crimes or testify as witnesses because they're afraid they themselves could be targets of police investigation if they are in this country illegally.
As the Council deliberated, Brown opposed the vote, saying Durham as a city should not be weighing in on an issue regulated by federal authorities.
"This is a federal issue and in my judgment, above my pay grade," Brown said. "If our very able police chief believes this is a reasonable, pragmatic and useful crime fighting tool, then I accept his decision. ... I wasn't elected to micromanage the Durham Police Department." Brown took the same stance in June when the Council boycotted travel to Arizona in light of the controversial new immigration law requiring law officers to demand documentation of anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
Clement voiced doubts over whether the Mexican ID cards were secure. Though she eventually voted in support, Mayor Pro-Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden vocally debated whether it even necessary for the Council to vote on the matter.
The proposal had been brought to the council via the Durham Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the Durham Immigrant Solidarity Committee, and was introduced at a Council work session last week. The resolution initially proposed that police and other community institutions across the city accept the Mexican national ID card as a valid form of identification, particularly as the requirements to obtain a N.C. driver's license now include a Social Security number.
Over the weekend, Mayor Bill Bell said, he realized that the Council didn't have jurisdiction over banks or other civil institutions and that if the Council passed a resolution on the matter, it should be strictly limited to police activities, in which the Council does have a stake.
Ever since the resolution was placed on Monday's agenda, the elected officials have been flooded with e-mails from all over the country on the matter. Those who urged support said the resolution was a way to build bridges with Mexican nationals in Durham. Many others have denounced the idea, saying it unfairly protects illegal immigrants without proper U.S.-issued identification.
Lopez said the ID card is simply a way of identifying a person police encounter. Police would still have the discretion to arrest or cite the holder for any criminal activity they observed of the person, he said.
"It does not give the holder of the card any specific rights other than we know who the person is," Lopez told the Council.
Several local and out-of-town commenters signed up to speak Monday, but a handful left the Council chambers grumbling loudly when Bell limited commenters to only those who were residents of Durham. Just as with a flood of e-mails elected officials have received, many commenters opposed to the resolution spoke on the larger issue of immigration reform in the country, rather than the specific practice of the Durham Police Department of accepting a Mexican ID as a valid form of identification.
"We’re asking folks to come in this community, stay here, work and get services, and they are breaking the law. And that is wrong," said Victoria Peterson, an outspoken resident and director of a nonprofit vocational program. "A lot of the illegal folks in this community are taking our jobs," she added.
Peter Katz, one of few supporters of the resolution who spoke, said he feared a failure by the Council to endorse the Mexican ID would "drive a wedge" between Latino immigrants and the Durham police.
"I wouldn’t want to live in a Durham where perhaps 10 percent of the population is afraid to report a crime," Katz said.