New Haven , United States

Urban Citizens: Municipal Identification Cards (ID) For Inclusive And Safe Communities

New Haven Mayors Office

November 18, 2008

Proactive city government takes the lead nationally on recognizing the interests of all city residents

Going to a pharmacy to have a prescription filled, opening and accessing a local bank account, using any public service including getting a library card – all of these require identification – something that many immigrants don’t have.

To overcome this hurdle, Mayor John DeStefano has led the initiative to have the City of New Haven approve a municipal ID card – the first of its kind in any American city. The card is universally available to all New Haven residents regardless of citizenship status.

The Elm City Residence Card (named for the trees that once dominated the regional landscape) was launched in July 2007. It was created to specifically address several specific areas of concern in the immigrant community specifically: public safety, access to financial services, access to government services, and knowledge about civil liberties and individual rights.

The card is not interchangeable with a drivers license or visa. However, what it does is validate its holders as full fledged participants in civil society.



The card In the city of New Haven, between 1990 and 2000 there was a 43 per cent increase in the foreign born population. Currently, there are 127,288 city residents, an estimated 17 percent of whom are foreign born. As with the rest of the state, residents from Latin America constitute the biggest group (38 per cent) of foreign born residents in the city. In addition, in New Haven there are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented immigrants, which means that about 10 percent of the city’s population is made up of residents without status.

A Practical Community Need

The rapid increase in the immigrant population in recent years presents the city with a number of challenges and opportunities, particularly as it relates to the undocumented population. These undocumented residents face the traditional obstacles confronted by immigrants (language barriers, cultural differences, barriers to educated attainment and low wage work) as well as additional problems uniquely tied to their lack of status, including difficulty accessing financial institutions, victimization, scams promising citizenship and other areas affecting quality of life.

Fear of authorities often dominates immigrant communities. John Jairo Lugo, president of the local immigrant rights group Unidad Latina en Accion said that lack of documentation deters immigrants from reporting crimes because they frequently become objects of suspicion if they are unable to prove their identities. “Our community has always been a target of attacks,” Lugo said, “but it is difficult to prove your innocence without an English language ID. If you have an encounter with the police department they can detain you for days or months in jail until you can come up with valid identification.”

Liam Brennan of the drafters of the Elm City ID proposal said that immigrants are disproportionately victimized by theft and home invasion, since they are frequently paid in cash but have nowhere to deposit their earning since local banks usually require a drivers license or social security number to set up an account – all documents that cannot be obtained by non-citizens. But Brennan said that many banks have agreed to accept the new municipal ID. With a possession of a bank account and a valid ID, it is hoped that immigrants will be simultaneously, “more likely to report crime and less likely to experience it themselves.”

Nevertheless, one of the challenges of the cards is that immigrants are wary of obtaining one in case it makes them vulnerable to the immigration authorities. It is estimated that one out of every five immigrants will apply for the ID. Immigrants who decide to apply also face intimidation by protesters who are opposed to the program.

Selling the idea

The City of New Haven won broad based support for the municipal ID program by promoting its practical virtues instead of its ideological ones. According to Board of Alderman President Carl Goldfield, the Elm City ID, “is above all a pragmatic policy – and one that benefits the whole city.” He continued, “From a public health and public safety standpoint, it just doesn’t make any sense to have 10,000 members of a community afraid to get medical help or report crime, just because they are undocumented.”

The other tactic that was used was that the creation of the ID cards was positioned as having broad based appeal. In addition to helping to create greater buy in for the initiative, it also would prevent undocumented immigrants from being easily identified by virtue of their cardholder status. Consequently, it was positioned as a useful form of ID for high school students (who have not yet qualified for a drivers license), seniors who may no longer have one and due to its “all in one” status).


About the Card


The ID card includes a resident’s photo, names, address, date of birth, date of issue and expiration and the cardholders signature. Each card has an identifying nine digit number. It is also a library card that can be used in any of the city’s six public library. The adult card has a debit chip in the reverse side that allows holders to load up to $150 that can be used to pay for city parking meters, garages and to purchase goods at about 50 participating stores. The card provides access to the Recycling Center and gives holders residential rates for the public beach and golf course. More recently it has been used to determine eligibility for a public works program to discard a large number of electronic products and for flu shots being dispensed at City Hall.

There is also a kids card. A separate children’s card that given parents or guardians the option of listing both emergency contact and allergy information.

Going Forward

Public officials in New York and other major cities are monitoring New Haven’s experiment and cautiously evaluating its suitability for their own communities.

However, Yale Law School Professor Michael Wishnie who is involved with the ID cards, adds that ultimately the municipal ID is only a short-term solution for a problem that demands “a federal fix.” He believes that local debate in cities in like New haven could however eventually generate enough pressure to bring federal law makers back to the table. “The friction that we are seeing here in Connecticut is what will drive people back to their senators to demand comprehensive reform,” Wishnie said. “Until that happens, communities will continue to govern themselves.”

For a selection of library resources related to this Good Idea, see sidebar at right.

Making it Work for You:

  • Municipal identity creates a sense of belonging, making social and economic integration easier.
  • All city residents, regardless of immigration status, contribute to local commerce and other forms of civic engagement
  • Making it possible for all residents to access public services, such as the use of a library or gaining access to parks, increases their ability to participate and become an integral part of the community.