Municipal IDs as a Tool for Inclusion

July 28th, 2014

Mayor-Bill-de-Blasio300x200When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a new law for issuing an ID card for any local resident who wants one -including undocumented immigrants- on July 10, 2014, he set into motion the largest program of its kind in the United States.

When rolled out in early 2015, New York City’s ID system will offer a photo identification card with less stringent documentation standards than driver’s licenses or state IDs. Cities such as New Haven, Conn., Los Angeles, San Francisco  and Oakland, Calif., already have similar programs.

Mayor de Blasio sees the municipal ID card as one of his signature initiatives, saying reliable identification is necessary to make the city’s libraries, schools and other core services more accessible to groups such as the city’s estimated half-million undocumented immigrants, homeless New Yorkers and transgender people.

An end to ‘walking ATMs’

The City of New Haven, a city of about 130,000,  pioneered the municipal ID card in 2007 based largely on public safety concerns. Unable to open bank accounts, many undocumented immigrants carried cash, or kept it at home, making them easy targets of theft. Afraid of being outed about their questionable status, many were reluctant to go to the police, meaning escalating crime rates were going unreported.

The municipal ID card was essentially a step towards making every resident a recognized member of urban community whatever their legal status. It gave the holder access to licensing bureaus, local banks, public libraries and other city services requiring identification and proof of residence.

Available for $10, New Haven has so far issued 12,000 cards that double as a library card and help immigrants open bank accounts. When the card was launched in 2007, the backlash was fierce, including what were widely thought to be retaliatory raids by federal immigration authorities, with several dozen undocumented immigrants arrested in the days after the card was unveiled.

“In 20 years as mayor, it generated the most hate mail and the only real physical threats I ever experienced,” former mayor John DeStefano was quoted as saying in an interview.

Kica Matos, the former Community Services Administrator of New Haven who led the implementation of the municipal ID program after extensive research conducted by Yale University’s  Law School, notes that the city took care not to put any residents at risk. The records are private and kept at City Hall, and the city does not keep track of ID card holders on the basis of status.  Often asked if municipal IDs could be used to identify those of questionable legal status by the authorities, her answer is explicit:

“The information in the database does not reveal anyone’s immigration status. Moreover, in 2008, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, after a series of hearings, held that information contained in our database falls under one of the Freedom of Information exemptions and thus, cannot be released. Procedurally, to quality for this exemption, the city received a letter confirming this from the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.”

Today, New Haven’s gone one step further to ensure community safety. Local  police operate with a ‘don’task, don’t tell” policy aimed at encouraging all city residents to report crimes regardless of their status.

Putting Community First

According to Matos, the municipal ID card initiative was really a community-based effort by immigrants, originating as far back as 2004, when Matos was the head of Junta, a Latino-focused community organization based in the neighbourhood of Fair Haven. The original plan was to change the laws to make it easier for immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. When that proved too difficult, the municipal ID plan emerged, with a whole suite of new ideas to create more access to public services

In addition to Parxmart technology that allows people to use the ID card to pay for parking on some of the older meters in town, the card was originally intended to also serve as a debit card, Matos said in an interview with a local newspaper.  That was “the biggest challenge that we failed to meet.” Her successor in the city administration, Chisara Asomugha, is working on making the card a more full-fledged debit card, complete with perhaps a MasterCard or Visa logo.

Municipal IDs doubling up as debit cards combines two smart urban policy innovations: municipal identification for access to essential city services and special banking products for immigrant and poor residents. On the banking part, a pioneering move was made by San Francisco. In 2006, city officials convinced a number of banks to lower monthly fees, remove minimum balances and accept IDs issued by the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates as proof of identification. Since then, more than 70 U.S. cities have adopted the so-called “Bank on San Francisco” model, including Oakland.

Genesis in sanctuary city movement

Municipal IDs and other measures to regularize the lives of the undocumented are part of the “sanctuary city” movement that has gained momentum in North America and Europe. In February 2014, for instance, the Canadian city of  Hamilton unanimously passed a motion making it a sanctuary city for undocumented individuals. The move came exactly a year after neighbouring Toronto took action to become Canada’s first official sanctuary city.

Ideas like these to ensure access to services to immigrants without full status or all required status documents are successful integration practices that are easy to replicate. Juan Camilo, London Project Manager, Migrants’ Rights Network, London, UK., says the New Haven municipal ID plan caught his eye because it is not common to see public authorities devising policies with the aim of including irregular migrants.

“It is also interesting that ID cards are in this case a tool for inclusion, whereas… national ID card in the UK has been strongly opposed by campaigners because of privacy concerns. It shows how the same tools can be used for different effects and that the local context can be determinant for an idea to take hold,” said Camilo.


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