SANTA ANA, California (AP) -- The Mexican government on Thursday will start issuing birth certificates to its citizens at consulates in the United States, seeking to make it easier for them to apply for U.S. work permits, driver's licenses and protection from deportation.
Until now, Mexico has required 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 them, which can delay their applications for immigration or other programs.
Now, even as Republicans in Congress try to quash President Barack Obama's reprieve to millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S., Mexico is trying to help them apply for programs that would allow them to remain temporarily in the 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 of the 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally are from Mexico, and immigration experts estimate that roughly 3 million Mexicans could be eligible to apply for work permits and protection from deportation under the administration's plan.
About two weeks ago, California -- which is home to more Mexicans than any other state -- began issuing driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
Starting Thursday, the country's 50 consulates in the United States will be able to access data maintained by regional governments in Mexico and print birth certificates at the consulates, said Arturo Sanchez, consul for press and commercial affairs in Santa Ana, California.
Consulates should be able to issue birth certificates for nearly all birthplaces in Mexico, but some rural 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.
Mexican immigrants usually seek birth certificates to obtain a passport or consular identification card so they can then apply for a driver's license or immigration relief, he said.
In California, Mexican consular officials have supported the rollout of the new driver's license program, holding information sessions and offering test preparation classes to help immigrants pass the written test required to get a license.
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 across the border.
Mexican migrant workers, many who live in the United States, sent home $21.6 billion to their families in 2013, according to the country's central bank.
Vaughan, whose organization advocates for tighter limits on immigration, said the integrity of birth certificates is critical because they are used to issue key identity documents like passports.
"If we can trust the Mexican government to do its due diligence and establish a system with integrity, then this will work and it is up to us to make sure we are communicating with them about what we need to see in terms of integrity," she said. "That is a big if."