Lawmakers and immigration reform groups blasted the Bush administration for quietly allowing Mexico to distribute thousands of identification cards to Mexican nationals to help them reap the benefits offered in the United States.

Matricula consular cards are being doled out by the Mexican government at $25 a pop and are good for five years. All a Mexican national needs is a birth certificate and a photo ID issued either in the United States or Mexico, and he or she can use the card to obtain social services in the United States, open bank or utility accounts and obtain building permits.

Financial institutions such as Wells Fargo and J.P Morgan Chase were among the first to start accepting the cards as identification to open bank accounts.

Critics say that not only do the cards allow illegal aliens to win benefits designated for U.S. citizens, but that by accepting the practice, the U.S. government is opening the door for illegal immigrants from other — and potentially more dangerous — countries to demand the same.

"The issue extends the immediate example of Mexico and must be considered in terms of precedence-setting policy for other foreign governments that wish to do the same thing for their illegal populations," said Marti Dinerstein, president of Immigration Matters and an author of a Center for Immigration Studies report on the matricula cards.

Dinerstein said the card is now accepted by 800 local law enforcement agencies, 74 banks and 13 states for purposes of obtaining a driver's license.

"This does have homeland security implications in that it compromises our identification system and contracts it out to foreign governments," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "I think that the White House didn't think through the implications of them giving the green light to Mexico to give an end run around Congress. This has real implications for how policy is made in the United States."

Krikorian and Dinerstein said the documents used by Mexicans to get the cards are frequently not verified by officials and safeguards are not in place to prevent multiple cards from being used by the same person. The report also states that the Mexican government has no secure computer system in place to track Mexican nationals and suggests Mexican illegals may try to use the cards to evade arrest, jail and deportation.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox talked often of an open border between the two countries. But after the attacks, the issue became obscured with debates over terrorism, war and homeland security, a large portion of which involves border security.

However, Bush, who has tried to maintain close relations with Fox, and is actively courting the Hispanic population in the United States, has looked the other way as the U.S. Treasury gave the matricula cards their blessing and last year urged U.S. financial institutions to accept them.

On July 17, 2002, Treasury and seven federal financial regulators issued rules requiring banks and other institutions to establish minimum rules to prove the identity of customers. A footnote to the document, however, says, "the proposed regulations do not discourage bank acceptance of the 'matricula consular' identity card that is being issued by the Mexican government to immigrants."

"It appears the U.S. Treasury Department has given it de facto approval," Dinerstein said, which means local banks are taking their cue from Treasury. "The United States and local governments are investing it with value."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has hailed a similar program in San Francisco that permits the Phillip Burton Federal Building to accept matricula cards for those seeking to gain access.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry in December announced that it has issued more than 1 million of the cards, primarily through its consular offices in the United States.

But there has been some backlash. Since reports of the cards' extensive use earlier this month, the General Services Administration has announced it would halt the acceptance of such cards pending an investigation by the State Department, GSA and other federal agencies.

A group of lawmakers led by Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has also sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell urging him to take action against governments from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, who are also actively pursuing use of the cards.

Tancredo, chairman of the congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, and several other caucus members have introduced legislation calling on the U.S. government not to accept anything other than a document issued by the U.S. federal or state government when people apply for various public services or benefits.