SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) -- The Mexican government Thursday began issuing birth certificates to its citizens at its consulates in the United States to make it easier for immigrants to obtain U.S. work permits, driver's licenses and protection from deportation.
Until now, Mexico has required its citizens to get birth certificates at government offices in Mexico. Many of those living in the U.S. ask friends and relatives back home to retrieve the paperwork, but the delay can hold up their applications for various benefits.
Now, even as Republicans in Congress try to undo President Barack Obama's plan to shield millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S., Mexico is trying to help them apply for programs that would allow them to remain in this country and continue sending money back to relatives across the border.
"It is a huge help. It helps individuals really begin to formulate their formal identity in this country," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
About half 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 to apply for work permits and protection from deportation under the administration's plan.
People applying to stay in this country will probably have to produce photo ID, such as a passport. And a birth certificate is necessary to get a passport.
About two weeks ago, California -- home to more Mexicans than any other state -- began issuing driver's licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
From now on, Mexico's 50 consulates in the U.S. will be able to get access to data maintained by regional governments in Mexico and print birth certificates, said Arturo Sanchez, consul for press and commercial affairs in Santa Ana, California.
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.
Over the past year, the Santa Ana consulate has seen a surge in the demand for documents. Daily appointments have jumped by a third to nearly 400, with many people trying to get birth certificates, Sanchez said.
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 many Mexicans born in remote, rural communities do not make the necessary journey to the nearest government office to obtain a birth certificate, Salas said.
The move comes a day after House Republicans voted to overturn Obama's immigration policies and remove protection for immigrants brought illegally to America as children.
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."