Skip to Content

Cities increasingly turning to municipal ID cards

12 Aug

Mayor cites model where nonprofit, police work together

By Lomi Kriel

With immigration reform deadlocked and election rhetoric against it divisive, Houston and cities across the country are increasingly considering providing identification cards to immigrants and other vulnerable populations.

The lack of a government-sanctioned ID can turn any interaction with police into citations, jail time or even deportation, so residents often fear contacting law enforcement. Even cashing a check, fulfilling a prescription or visiting a health clinic can be troublesome. But immigrants and homeless residents often don’t qualify for such IDs because they can’t prove that they are here legally or reside in the state.

In response, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City already distribute local IDs, as does New Haven, Conn., and Greensboro, N.C. Cincinnati is implementing a similar program this month and on Thursday El Paso County officials earmarked funds for a proposed joint program with the city. Boston is pursuing the idea and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he, too, is exploring the issue, though it wouldn’t progress until 2017.

“You have a lot of people needing access to banks, businesses, city and government services, and they need IDs,” Turner said. “You also need to ID people who you have in your city.”

The concept began in New Haven in 2007 as a way to help immigrants in the country illegally who were often robbed and assaulted because, unable to open bank accounts, they carried large amounts of cash.

Reaction was vicious, with protesters disrupting hearings and intimidating businesses that supported the program. The cards, they said, would encourage illegal immigration and spur identity theft. They even filed Freedom of Information requests to publicize the names, addresses and photos of everyone with an ID card, though it was denied for privacy reasons.

Almost a decade later, advocates there say more than 10,000 cards have been issued, the program is working as intended and it has encouraged victims of crimes to report them to the authorities. Similar programs have since spread to Hartford, Conn., several counties in New Jersey and Washington.

At issue for some local governments, however, is what can be a prohibitive cost. New York’s ID program, for instance, received an initial allocation of $8 million, plus an additional $5 million after enrollment for it far exceeded expectations.

That’s why Turner said Houston may be more likely to consider a model popularized three years ago in North Carolina in which a nonprofit group works with police to issue and fund the cards, which show a photo, full name, address, date of birth, country of origin and date of expiration. It has been copied across the U.S.

Building trust with police

Rev. David Fraccaro, executive director of FaithAction International House in Greensboro, said officials developed the initiative after hosting a series of community meetings on the deep distrust between North Carolina’s immigrant population and its law enforcement, which like all state and local agencies cannot enforce federal immigration law.

“The immigrants would say, ‘How can we build trust with you if you don’t believe we are who we say we are if you pull us over? Why don’t you give us licenses?’ ” Fraccaro said. “The cops would say, ‘That would make things easier for us, but we can’t do that. If we can’t positively identify you, then we have to treat you like anyone else and take you to jail.'”

The city of about 280,000 didn’t have either the political will or financial resources to fund the initiative itself. So Fraccaro’s nonprofit met with law enforcement agencies to come up with a design for an ID card that would meet their security needs. They found a donor to fund the equipment.

With an initial investment of $5,000, it now costs about $25,000 a year to run monthly identification drives. While not a daily operation like New York’s, it issues about 5,000 IDs a year at cost of $10 each.

Residents must show a passport or national ID and proof of address and sit for a photo. Though they don’t substitute for driver’s licenses, proponents say the documents minimize problems with police because officers can confirm people are who they claim to be and live where they say they do.

After just a year, Greensboro police said more than a dozen crimes had been solved because witnesses who had ID cards came forward. An attempt to kill the initiative in North Carolina’s state legislature this year rallied the law enforcement community and the program was ultimately kept mostly intact.

A 2013 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago surveyed 2,000 Hispanics in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston and found 70 percent of immigrants here illegally would not file a police report if they were a victim or witness to a crime because they fear police inquiring about their immigration status or that of someone they know.

State officials opposed

The ID program, however, has plenty of detractors who argue that it not only makes it easier for immigrants here illegally to stay, but could lead to fraud and misuse by criminals looking to conceal their identity.

“The only people who need (municipal IDs) are people here illegally and governments should not be issuing them when they have no way to authenticate the identities of the people asking for them,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., advocating for limited immigration, in an email. “All they do is create an opportunity for people to create a new identity.”

In Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, state governments have prevented municipalities from issuing such identity cards, and it’s likely the Republican-led Texas Legislature would try to do so, too.

After El Paso government officials discussed the proposal this summer, Gov. Greg Abbott compared it to an attempt to intentionally disregard federal immigration laws.

“We are going to ban sanctuary city policies,” he said on Twitter.

Houston City Councilman Robert Gallegos, who represents a predominantly Hispanic district, said city-issued IDs would help immigrants as well as the homeless, youth in the foster system, people with mental illness, and felons who may not have the paperwork or ability to obtain state-issued driver’s licenses.

Ideally such a city document would be a multi-functional card allowing residents not only to identify themselves to police, but also open bank accounts, obtain library cards and register at schools.

Alex Triantaphyllis, director of immigration at Neighborhood Centers Inc., a Houston nonprofit helping to lead the city’s push for a community ID, said it’s part of an effort to increase safety and dialogue in the city.

“This is a response to a lack of solutions at the federal level that requires local efforts to try to make things more seamless in terms of how the community is integrated,” Triantaphyllis said.