SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - For Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally and hoping to stay in the country under President Barack Obama's new immigration policy, things just got one step simpler.
On Thursday, the Mexican government began issuing birth certificates to its citizens at its consulates in the United States.
That will make it a little easier for Mexicans hoping to obtain U.S. work permits, driver's licenses and protection from deportation.
Up until now, Mexico required its citizens to get birth certificates at government offices in Mexico. Many of those living in this country had to ask friends and relatives back home to retrieve the paperwork.
Pedro Zamora, a 52-year-old cook, took advantage of the new program to obtain his birth certificate at the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana, California. He plans to apply for a California driver's license this week.
Before the change took place, Zamora had to ask his sister-in-law to pick up his son's and daughter's birth certificates in Colima, Mexico, so they could apply for Obama's immigration program for those brought to the U.S. illegally as children. But Zamora said the paperwork got lost in the mail - twice.
"It would take seven or 15 days and there was a risk of losing it," Zamora said.
While Republicans in Congress are trying to undo Obama's plan to shield millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S. from deportation, Mexico is trying to help them stay here and continue sending money back to relatives across the border.
About half of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally are from Mexico, and immigration experts say roughly 3 million of them could be eligible under the administration's plan.
Immigrants will probably need to produce photo identification such as a passport to apply for the program. And to get a Mexican passport, they need a birth certificate.
That has proved to be a problem for many Mexican immigrants.
Those who cross the border illegally to reach the United States rarely carry documents with them on the treacherous journey, partly to avoid detection. And some Mexicans born in remote, rural communities do not make the necessary journey to the nearest government office to start the process of obtaining a birth certificate.
Mexico's 50 consulates in the U.S. can now access data in Mexico and print birth certificates here, said Arturo Sanchez, consul for press and commercial affairs in Santa Ana.
Consulates should be able to issue birth certificates for nearly all places in Mexico, though some villages where documents are not digitally recorded may not be covered, Sanchez said.
The new practice comes two weeks after California - home to more Mexicans than any other state - began issuing driver's licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
After handing out birth certificates in Santa Ana, Jose Antonio Meade, Mexico's secretary of foreign affairs, said his government hopes Obama's program moves forward and that "the gap that today exists between the rights of citizens and the rights of immigrants every day will continue closing."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, who represents a San Diego-area congressional district, complained that U.S. and Mexican policies have combined to send more people across the border illegally.
"The administration's position and efforts seem to better align with Mexico's interests than they do with our own - and that's disappointing," he said.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said she believes Mexico is trying to make it easier for its citizens to stay here because of the money they send back.
Mexican migrant workers living abroad sent home $21.6 billion to their families in 2013, according to the country's central bank.
Vaughan, whose organization wants tighter limits on immigration, said ensuring birth certificates are authentic is critical because they are used to obtain key identity documents such as passports.
"If we can trust the Mexican government to do its due diligence and establish a system with integrity, then this will work," she said. But she added: "That is a big if."
Associated Press Writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report from Washington.
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