Implications of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations upon the Regulation of Consular Identification Cards
CRS Report for Congress
Implications of the Vienna Convention on
Consular Relations upon the Regulation of
Consular Identification Cards
Jennifer K. Elsea and Michael John Garcia
American Law Division
Recent controversy regarding the use of consular identification cards (IDs) by
aliens within the United States, in particular Mexico’s matricula consular, has led to
calls for legislation to regulate the issuance of the cards by foreign missions or their
acceptance by U.S. government and private entities. This report identifies possible
implications that U.S. regulation or monitoring of the issuance of these cards by foreign
missions might have upon U.S. obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular
Relations (VCCR), which protects foreign missions in the exercise of their legitimate
consular functions and codifies customary international law with respect to the
inviolability of consular premises and documents. The REAL ID Act (P.L. 109-13,
Division B) prohibits states, when issuing drivers’ licenses or state ID cards, from
accepting for purposes of personal identification foreign documents other than valid
passports, if such drivers’ licenses or ID cards are to be accepted for federal purposes.
Other recent legislative proposals aimed at restricting the acceptance (but not the
issuance) of consular IDs include H.R. 688, the SAFER Act, introduced by
Representative J. Gresham Barrett on February 9, 2005; H.R. 815, the Financial
Customer Identification Verification Improvement Act, introduced by Representative
Scott Garrett on February 15, 2005; and H.R. 925, the Identification Integrity Act of
Foreign consulates have historically issued consular identification cards to their
nationals residing within the United States. In recent years, efforts by Mexico and other
countries to persuade U.S. entities to accept the cards for identification purposes have
generated some controversy.1 Some charge that only illegal aliens have any need for
these documents, and that they are easily procured for fraudulent purposes. They object
1 See CRS Report RL32094, Consular Identification Cards: Domestic and Foreign Policy
Implications, the Mexican Case, and Related Legislation.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
that U.S. law enforcement agencies have no way of confirming the identification of the
holders, and advocate prohibiting U.S. banks and other entities from providing services
to persons whose only proof of identification is a consular ID.2 Others disagree that the
cards are less secure than typical forms of identification, and urge government and private
entities to accept the cards. They argue that cards enhance security by providing a means
of identifying illegal immigrants and discouraging crimes against them.3
Measures seeking to regulate the activities of foreign missions, such as the issuance
of consular IDs, may implicate U.S. obligations under the Vienna Convention on
Consular Relations (VCCR),4 which provides certain privileges and immunities to foreign
consular missions. This report provides a background and summary of the provisions of
the VCCR relevant to the issuance of consular IDs by foreign missions. The report
briefly analyzes possible conflicts between the obligations of the United States under the
VCCR and some of the potential means of addressing the security issues associated with
the matricula consular and similar IDs.
The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations
The institution of consuls began centuries ago as a product of international
commerce. In modern times, States (countries) establish consulates in major foreign cities
to represent their interests to the local authorities in certain matters, including issues
concerning trade and navigation, and to perform services for nationals of the sending
State. The VCCR was completed in 1963 as a multilateral treaty to codify consular
practices that developed through customary international law and numerous bilateral5
treaties. Most States, including the United States and Mexico, have ratified the VCCR,
and the United States has “relied increasingly on it as the principal basis for the conduct6
of [its] consular activities.”
The VCCR enumerates basic legal rights and duties of signatory States including,
inter alia, (1) the establishment and conduct of consular relations, by mutual consent, and
(2) the privileges and immunities of consular officers and offices from the laws of the
“receiving State” (the country where the foreign consular office has been established).
If the receiving State fails to honor the privileges and immunities afforded to the “sending
State” (the State that has established a consular office in the receiving State) under the
VCCR, the sending State is permitted to reciprocate this treatment against the foreign
2 See Hearing on the Federal Government’s Response to Consular Identification Cards Before the
House Subcomm. on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims, 108th Cong. 44-45 (Jun. 26,
2003) [hereinafter Hearings] (statement of Craig Nelson, Director, Friends of Immigration
3 See id. at 163-64 (statement of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund).
4 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, Apr. 24, 1963, 21 U.S.T. 77 [hereinafter VCCR].
5 The United States and Mexico also retain a bilateral treaty on consular relations that largely
overlaps with provisions of the VCCR. Convention between the United States of America and
Mexico Respecting Consular Officers, Mar. 26, 1943, 57 Stat. 800.
6 United States Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Consular Notification and
Access, Part 5: Legal Material, available at [http://travel.state.gov/law/consular/
consulates that the receiving State has established in the sending State.7 There is also
recourse if the sending State acts in disregard of its obligations under the VCCR.
Consular officials who conduct activity outside the scope of legitimate consular functions
are not immune to judicial or administrative process with respect to such activity.8 The
receiving State may also demand that the sending State recall any consular official whose
conduct it finds objectionable, even if such conduct is related to a legitimate consular
function, or request it to take other remedial action.9 States Parties may also have
recourse to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve any disputes.10
Issuance of Consular Identification Cards as a Consular Function. The
VCCR does not directly privilege the issuance of consular IDs. However, Article 5 of the
7 VCCR art. 72(2). According to the State Department, the U.S. “itself issues documents other
than a passport for U.S. citizens abroad and at times occasionally issues similar identity cards or
travel documents...” See Hearings, supra note 2 (statement of Roberta S. Jacobson, Acting
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs). It is unclear
how reciprocity would operate where the receiving State’s foreign missions do not perform the
consular function abroad that it seeks to restrict at home. If reciprocity is limited to actions
affecting the same consular function, the United States would be subject to retaliation only in
States where U.S. missions issue consular IDs to U.S. nationals. However, it may be that an
aggrieved State could restrict some other consular function to a proportionate degree. For
example, in the event the that Secretary of State suspended the issuance of visas to nationals of
a sending State as a penalty for its issuance of consular IDs to persons who have not been legally
admitted into the United States, that State could reciprocate by suspending visas to U.S.
8 VCCR art. 43(1). Consular officers are immune from judicial or administrative procedure with
respect to any activity they carry out as part of their official consular duties, but not for private
conduct. A consular official may be immune from suit for conduct that violates a law, as longth
as the act qualifies as a discretionary consular function. See Risk v. Halvorsen, 936 F.2d 393 (9
Cir. 1991) (Norwegian consular official was immune from lawsuit for provision of travel
documents and other assistance to a national and her children, despite a court order prohibiting
the woman from removing the children from the jurisdiction of the court).
9 See VCCR art. 23 (upon notification that a consular officer has been declared persona non grata
by the receiving State, the sending State shall recall the person concerned or terminate his or her
functions); id. art. 25 (receiving State may refuse to issue or withdraw exequatur — a certificate
of authorization — with regard to members of a foreign consular post).
10 The United States is a party to the Optional Protocol Concerning the Compulsory Settlement
of Disputes, whose parties agree to accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ to resolve disputes arising
between States with respect to the VCCR. The United States brought such a case against Iran
during the Hostage Crisis. See United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran, (United
States of America v. Iran), ICJ Judgment, May 24, 1980. The United States has defended against
complaints with regard to VCCR art. 36, which states that aliens arrested or detained in the
receiving State shall be notified of their right to communicate with the appropriate consulate.
See, e.g., Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mexico v. United States of America), ICJ
Judgment (Mar. 31, 2004); Case Concerning the VCCR (Breard) (Para. v. United States), ICJ
(Apr. 9, 1998). In the Avena case, the ICJ instructed the United States to review and reconsider
the convictions and sentences of foreign nationals denied requisite consular information owed
under VCCR art. 36, and held that U.S. state or federal procedural default rules should not
prevent relief from Article 36 violations. For additional background, see CRS Report RL32390,
Vienna Convention on Consular Relations: Overview of U.S. Implementation and International
Court of Justice (ICJ) Interpretation of Consular Notification Requirements.
Convention lists among legitimate consular functions (1) issuing passports and travel
documents to nationals of the sending State, and visas or appropriate documents to
persons wishing to travel to the sending State, (2) protecting in the receiving State the
interests of the sending State within the limits permitted by international law, and (3)
helping and assisting nationals of the sending State.11 While the VCCR explicitly
provides that certain other consular functions may be limited by the laws and regulations
of the receiving State, it does not provide for any limitation on these key functions.12
Although a consular ID is not a passport, some States may recognize it as a “travel
document” that makes it easier for nationals to travel back to the sending State. For
example, the Mexican Consulate for Houston, Texas includes on its web page a message
from the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating, “If you are a Mexican Citizen and
wishes (sic) to travel to Mexico, a Mexican Passport is not necessary, you may apply for
a Consular ID (Matricula).”13 Additionally, it may be argued that consular IDs serve a
legitimate consular function of the sending State in assisting its nationals. The Mexican
Consulate, for example, argues that the matricula consular will enable Mexican nationals
to obtain banking accounts in the U.S., so as to provide “a more secure way to
handle...money and facilitate its transfer to Mexico.”14 Consular IDs may also assist the
sending State’s foreign consulate in identifying, monitoring, and coming to the aid of its
nationals within the receiving State.15 Accordingly, States might object that U.S. efforts
to regulate the issuance of consular IDs interfere with legitimate consular functions, and
may view such regulations as infringing on their sovereignty.
On the other hand, the VCCR obligates consular officers “not to interfere in the
internal affairs of [the receiving] State,”16 and requires that consular premises “not be
11 VCCR art. 5 (a) & (d-e).
12 See, e.g, id. art. 5(h) (a foreign mission’s ability to safeguard the interests of minors and other
persons lacking full capacity is limited by the laws and regulations of the receiving State); art.
5(i) (a mission’s right to represent or arrange representation for nationals before tribunals of the
receiving State is “subject to the practices and procedures” of the receiving State and in
accordance with its domestic laws and regulations).
13 Mexican Consulate for Houston, Texas, Consular ID Card (Matricula), available at
[http://www.sre.gob.mx/houston/MatriculaEng.htm] (last visited Jan. 26, 2005) [hereinafter
Mexican Consulate for Houston]. Under U.S. immigration law, many Canadians and Mexicans
are permitted to enter the United States without passports, using instead, for example, U.S.-issued
border-crossing cards. See 2 C. GORDON ET AL., IMMIGRATION LAW & PROCEDURE § 12.04
14 See Mexican Consulate for Houston, supra note 13.
15 When a foreign national is arrested in the receiving State, it is obligated to notify the national’s
foreign consulate upon the national’s request. VCCR art. 36. According to the U.S. Department
of State, “because a foreign consular identification card is a means to identify an individual as
a foreign national, a bearer’s possession of this card can alert responsible law enforcement
authorities to the need to provide consular notification.” See Hearings, supra note 2, at 114
(statement of Roberta Jacobson)
16 VCCR art. 55(1).
used in any manner incompatible with the exercise of consular functions.”17 It may be
argued that the issuance of consular IDs to persons residing in the United States, knowing
they may be used in part for purposes other than consular notification and provision of
consular benefits, potentially impacts the receiving State beyond the scope of customary
consular functions, constituting an internal interference. Opponents of consular IDs argue
that providing assistance in a manner known to facilitate the stay of unlawful aliens is not
a consular function intended to be protected by the VCCR. However, the VCCR does not
distinguish among foreign nationals based on their immigration status, and does not
impose on consulates a duty to take action to prevent or report their nationals’ entering
or remaining in the receiving State unlawfully.
Inviolability of Consular Premises and Documents. The principle of
inviolability of consular premises is recognized in many treaties regarding consular
relations, although some provide for certain exceptions.18 Article 31 of the VCCR states
that any part of the consular premises which is used exclusively for consular work shall
be inviolable to the authorities of the receiving State absent authorization from the
sending State’s representatives. Under this provision, U.S. inspectors would not be able
to enter consular premises to conduct inspections without the consent of the sending
State. The principle of inviolability of consular archives is even more firmly established
as part of customary international law.19 The VCCR codifies this rule at Article 33,
which states that all consular archives and documents “shall be inviolable at all times and
wherever they may be.” Foreign consuls would appear to be within their rights to refuse
access to their premises and archives to allow the inspection and auditing of records
related to the issuance of consular IDs. On the other hand, a sending State could choose
to enter into an agreement with the United States to make these documents available, or
to otherwise satisfy the Secretary of State that the identification cards do not pose a threat
to the United States.
Obligation to Honor Consular Identification Cards. While the VCCR may
obligate a receiving State to allow foreign consular offices to exercise their legitimate
consular functions, the Convention does not place limitations upon a State’s ability to
adopt domestic laws limiting the effects that consular functions might have upon the
State’s internal affairs. Thus, although the VCCR provides that consular offices are
privileged to issue passports and travel documents to nationals intending to travel to other
States, there is no concomitant obligation upon other States to allow foreign nationals
with these documents to enter their countries, or to live or remain there contrary to law.
Accordingly, legislation limiting the acceptance of consular IDs by U.S. entities is less
17 Id. art. 55(2).
18 See B. SEN, A DIPLOMAT’S HANDBOOK OF INTERNATIONAL LAW AND PRACTICE 287 (3d ed.
1988) (noting that some conventions contain exceptions for police to enter the consular premises
in an emergency or pursuant to court order).
19 See id. at 288-89 (noting the inviolability of consular archives is one of the few that is
universally recognized). “Consular archives” include “all the papers, documents,
correspondence, books, films, tapes and registers of the consular post, together with the ciphers
and codes, the card-indexes and any article of furniture intended for their protection or
safekeeping.” VCCR art. 1(1)(k).
likely to raise concerns regarding the VCCR than legislation limiting foreign consular
offices’ ability to issue IDs to nationals residing within the United States.20
The VCCR does not prohibit the United States from enacting laws that impose
different standards for the domestic acceptance of identification cards issued by different
States. Article 72 of the VCCR requires only that States do not discriminate in their
treatment of other States in “the application of the provisions of the...Convention.” The
VCCR would not seem to require the United States to recognize or afford equal benefits
to all holders of consular IDs, regardless of the State that issued them. The VCCR
permits states to grant additional rights to certain countries above and beyond Convention
provisions without violating the Convention’s non-discrimination requirements.21 Thus,
legislation restricting the acceptance of certain consular IDs by U.S. entities would likely
raise fewer concerns regarding VCCR obligations than legislation directly regulating the
issuance of cards by foreign missions. However, States that desire to improve the
usefulness of such documents to their nationals may be willing to satisfy U.S. security
concerns by mutual arrangement, which would not contravene any provisions of the
Recent Legislative Action
A number of legislative proposals have been introduced in the 109th Congress that
would restrict the acceptance (but not the issuance) of consular IDs by U.S. institutions.
Section 202(3)(B) the REAL ID Act,22 enacted May 11, 2005, prohibits U.S. states, when
issuing drivers’ licenses or state ID cards, from accepting for purposes of personal
identification foreign documents other than valid passports, if such state drivers’ licenses
or ID cards are to be accepted for federal purposes. Other recent legislative proposals
aimed at restricting the acceptance of consular IDs include § 503 of H.R. 688, the SAFER
Act, which was introduced by Representative J. Gresham Barrett on February 9, 2005,
and generally limits federal acceptance of foreign identification documents for
identification purposes; H.R. 815, the Financial Customer Identification Verification
Improvement Act, which was introduced by Representative Scott Garrett on February 15,
2005, and prohibits U.S. financial institutions from accepting foreign identification
documents other than valid passports for purposes of verifying an applicant’s identity;
and H.R. 925, the Identification Integrity Act of 2005, which was introduced by
Representative Elton Gallegly on February 17, 2005, and generally prohibits federal
acceptance of foreign identification documents other than valid passports for any official
20 Though not an issue under the VCCR, a domestic legal concern might arise as to how broadly
Congress can regulate the acceptance of consular IDs by state, local, and private entities.
21 VCCR art. 72(2)(b).
22 P.L. 109-13, Division B.