In the past, millions of Mexicans who live in the United States illegally have been unable to open bank accounts because they did not have legal identification. But increasingly, U.S businesses and city agencies are recognizing identity cards issued by Mexican consulates. Mexico's foreign minister came to Los Angeles Wednesday to announce new security safeguards in the identity-card program.

At least three million Mexicans live in the United States without documentation. With heightened security concerns following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mexican officials say the new fraud-proof cards will be a reliable form of identification.

Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda introduced the cards at the Mexican consulate here on Wednesday. "The new cards meet high security standards, including a holographic seal and other features that make them difficult to copy," he pointed out.

Mexican consulates have issued identity cards for years, but since last year they have become increasingly important. Although the bearers may not be legally entitled to live and work in the United States, Mr. Castaneda says many, in fact, do and they make a contribution to the U.S. economy.

Local police agencies are generally not involved in enforcing immigration laws, and Agustin Pradillo, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Mexican consulate, says several cities in California and Texas now accept the cards, known as matricula consular, as legal identification. This avoids problems like jailing people for minor infractions because they could not prove their identity.

"The city of San Francisco accepts the matricula consular" he said. "The police department of Santa Ana [California] too. And Austin [Texas], the police of the city accept the matricula consular. And so do several police agencies in Arizona, Georgia, and a number of other states.

Undocumented workers have trouble opening bank accounts and securing credit. Miriam Galicia Duarte of the California-based Wells Fargo Bank says her company started accepting the identity cards last November, in response to a request from the Mexican consulate. The bank official emphasized it was partly a goodwill gesture, but also good business.

"We're benefitting thousands and thousands of Mexican nationals in this country who now have their money in a safe place," said Ms. Duarte. "And they are now no longer the victims of crime because they were carrying cash on them. But as a financial services institution, it makes perfect business sense for us."

Although some other businesses started accepting the cards earlier, Wells Fargo was the first to announce a company-wide program. Ms. Duarte notes that many other banks now accept the identity card. "Everyone else, Union Bank of California, Bank of America, Citibank have all really followed in our steps, which is very, very gratifying for us," she said.

Los Angeles resident Laura Gonzales was one of the first Mexican nationals to apply for the new card in Los Angeles. She received it from the Mexican foreign minister. After the ceremony, she went to a nearby bank to open her first U.S. bank account. Without it, she was unable to do many things.

"You can't buy a car or you can't buy a house if you don't have an account in the bank, and now, with this card, we are going to have the opportunity to have those things that before we couldn't have," she said.

Mexican foreign minister Castaneda hopes U.S. federal officials will accept the new card as legal identification, but more important, he hopes for U.S. recognition of undocumented Mexican workers.

He notes that talks have been underway since April of last year involving high-level U.S. and Mexican officials.

"I think we've made a lot of progress at the technical level and we hope to have a series of proposals soon to be able to address, among other issues, the issue of regularization or documentation of Mexican nationals in the United States who currently are without papers," said Mr. Castaneda. "We think we're moving along. And as far as we're concerned, we're [also] moving along with our consular ID and we hope to be able to obtain some form of federal recognition or acknowledgment of the consular ID soon."

Anti-immigrant activists complain that U.S. immigration laws are not seriously enforced among the millions of Mexican workers who live in the country. U.S. officials point out that possession of the card will not prevent illegal immigrants from being deported. Mexican officials argue that migratory workers help the U.S. economy, while also sending $8 billion a year back to Mexico.

Mr. Castaneda was in California in the place of Mexican president Vicente Fox, who was scheduled to unveil the new identification cards in San Francisco. Mr. Fox cancelled a three-day trip to the United States and Canada after Mexico's senate voted last week to block the visit. Opposition parties said Mr. Fox should pay more attention to problems at home.