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Municipal ID Cards

Source: Corbis

Documenting the Undocumented

Making Illegals Legal In One Easy Step

Why you should care

Perhaps you, too, covet an ID card that proclaims you a bona fide resident of New York City. 

Comprehensive immigration reform is on again. No, it’s off again. No, it’s on again. Nope, it’s off again.

Take heart, CIR enthusiasts. As the back-and-forth over immigration reform enters its umpteenth year, a potential workaround might be coming to a city near you.

Since 2007, a handful of cities have issued municipal IDs to residents, regardless of their citizenship. The idea is to integrate undocumented immigrants by making it easier for them to open bank accounts, interact with the police, access city services and rent an apartment. Bringing the undocumented “out of the shadows” will improve civic life for everyone, proponents say.

It’s a warm-hearted move as well as a political calculation. The concept is generally popular in cities, which tend to lean liberal, and is sure to have long-range appeal among voters as national demographics shift. About a dozen cities are in some stage of the municipal ID process.

The line between protecting and branding residents can be a fine one.

But ID cards are not an easy way out of the immigration quagmire. Opponents argue that municipal IDs overstep local authority, could lead to fraud and lure terrorists. The earliest version won vicious backlash, including from federal authorities. Even those who support the cards stress the importance of sweating the small stuff, like card design and privacy controls. The big risk: Unless they’re popular with immigrants and non-immigrants alike, the ID cards can brand as outsiders the very people they attempt to embrace.

“It’s been trial and error for cities to even realize that it’s a risk and start guarding against it,” says Emily Tucker, an attorney at the Center of Popular Democracy who has studied the issue in depth.

This week, New York City will hold its first hearings on municipal ID legislation, a pet project of the new mayor, Bill de Blasio. If approved, New York’s program would be the most prominent of its kind. It would send a message, too, for New York City has a certain symbolic status in matters of security and immigration.

Proponents like Tucker are enthusiastic about New York’s foray into municipal IDs, if a bit wary. If not done right, they say, the ID cards won’t protect undocumented immigrants, but just sort and label them for easy deportation. The line between protecting and branding can be a fine one. The IDs tend to work best when other protections for undocumented residents are in place: confidentiality for city services, local law enforcement policies that limit interaction with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and other “sanctuary city” provisions. “Without those things, people won’t want to use the card — they’ll be too afraid,” says Tucker.

Cities vary enormously on this count: Some abide by the ICE’s “detainer requests,” holding suspected unauthorized immigrants in local jails until the federal authorities pick them up. Others refuse. Some jurisdictions allow police to act as ICE deputes. Others won’t allow police officers to inquire about immigration status.

Table with uniformed police officers speaking with people

Source: Lenny Ignelzi/AP/Corbis

California Highway Patrol officers lead an information session on obtaining a state driver’s license at the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, Calif., on April 23, 2014.

Cities are able to enact progressive agendas that likely wouldn’t fly nationally.

New Haven, Conn., was the first municipality to adopt local IDs, in 2007, after a robber stabbed an immigrant to death. According to reports, undocumented immigrants were dubbed “walking ATMs” — often, they carried cash, as they couldn’t open bank accounts. New Haven’s program faced some backlash, including, allegedly, from federal authorities: Less than two days after the city passed municipal ID legislation, the ICE raided homes in the area and detained 32 immigrants.

Although the city has stood by its program– it’s issued some 10,000 IDs– it’s not clear how functional the IDs are. Cashiers often don’t accept it, researchers found, and it served mostly to underscore the city’s pro-immigrant attitude.

Since 2007, Oakland, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and several localities in New Jersey have all joined suit. Programs in Richmond and Los Angeles have been approved, and local governments from Philadelphia to Iowa City and Phoenix are contemplating issuing cards, too.

The local ID programs are yet another instance of cities taking “an affirmative step toward securing interests of their residents in the face of congressional inaction,” says Peter Bailon, a lawyer at the progressive American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange. They also demonstrate cities’ ability to enact progressive agendas that likely wouldn’t fly nationally.

Official documentation could serve as ’breeder documents’ for other IDs, critics say.

But are cities exceeding their authority? “It’s not just usurping but contravening federal law,” says Ira Melhman, spokesperson for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). There’s controversy here. Although the federal government places control over immigration firmly within its authority, the law does not explicitly forbid the issuance of local IDs, proponents say. And the feds have tended to turn a blind eye to the programs.

Mehlman and others say they also worry about terrorism. They argue that municipal ID requirements are lax and could allow criminals to procure false identification. Official documentation, even if limited to a few municipal venues, could serve as “breeder documents” for other IDs, they say. New York state Senator Greg Ball blasted the municipal ID plan as the “de Blasio Terrorist Empowerment Act.”

ID proponents dismiss such fears as absurd. The IDs, they point out, have stringent eligibility requirements and limited jurisdiction. They don’t replace federal identification documents such as passports, social security cards or tax identification numbers. Their main concern is that the IDs actually be used.

It may not be so easy to circumvent the federal government though, even for cities that are relatively friendly to the undocumented, like New York. De Blasio’s administration has already issued notice that it could put out bid specifications for ID cards, but the City Council has lagged. Only 15 council members have come out saying they favor the legislation, short of the 26 needed for a majority.

Of course, with hearings starting tomorrow, that could change quickly. Are you ready for your New Yorker ID, New Yorkers?

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Meet The Author Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia writes about justice, policy and many other things for Ozy…AND makes an exception for oysters.

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