Municipal IDs Open Up Pathways to Opportunity

For the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, the inability to obtain a state-issued ID poses a staunch barrier for participating in local economies and community life. Though undocumented immigrants contributed an estimated $10.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2010, lack of identification prevents these residents from accessing services at essential institutions like banks, libraries, hospitals, and schools, forcing many to live on the fringes of our social, political, and economic life. Though pathways to citizenship remain stalled at the federal level, 13 cities across the country are taking the lead on immigration reform with innovative municipal ID programs that can foster inclusion and participation for their immigrant residents and other marginalized groups.

New Haven, Connecticut, led the nation by being the first to issue a city identification card in spite of xenophobic sentiments in the region. Now cities are not only issuing their own ID cards, they are building on this model in ways that help connect those who’ve been living in the shadows to services, resources, and opportunity.

“We are trying to get them out of the shadows so they can feel welcomed in our community and to participate,” says Newark Mayor Ras Baraka who will launch his own city-issued ID program July 1 (read the rest of his interview with Angela Glover Blackwell). “The immigrants who came to these communities actually helped stabilize [the local economy] by opening up stores and engaging in the economy, but they don’t get credit for it,” says Mayor Baraka. Although similar to other ID programs, Newark had to modify local laws to ensure undocumented entrepreneurs could benefit from the program. The city council removed the proof of citizenship requirement needed for street vendor licenses, expanding opportunities in the business sector.

Public safety, lack of access to social and government services, and marginalization are the concerns cities are trying to address with municipal IDs to not only improve residents’ sense of belonging to a community, but to spur local economic growth. When New Haven launched its Elm City Resident ID it did so to address these interwoven challenges. Undocumented immigrants in New Haven were perpetual targets of theft because it was generally known that they did not have access to bank accounts to deposit their checks. Targeted as “walking ATMs” for carrying large amounts of cash with them, most victims did not report attacks to police fearing that, not having a “valid” form of identification would reveal their undocumented status, and, possibly, place them on a path to deportation. Since the municipal IDs establish residency, questions about an immigrant’s status are no longer relevant. The city, however, must have an understanding with the police department about this crucial agreement. To ensure that immigrant residents could open bank accounts, New Haven also worked with several local banks who agreed to accept the cards as secondary proof of identification.        

Measuring the economic gains of municipal IDs

The economic gains of municipal identification cards have yet to be quantified. Since the launch of the first city ID in 2007 in New Haven, cities across the country have added new benefits and features to the card that can potentially have a greater economic impact on the local economy. The municipal ID in Oakland, California, for example, can also be used as a debit card. Although advocates are divided on this benefit due to the various fees associated with the debit card feature, it gets undocumented immigrants closer to accessing much-needed financial services.

Studies have shown positive impacts on the local social, political, cultural, and economic life for the communities that implement ID programs. About 10,000 New Haven residents were using the ID card by 2012. Crime decreased 20 percent in the first two years the card came out. And, most importantly, the card helped foster a sense of belonging among the immigrant population. The direct economic impact was more difficult to quantify. Only 60 people used the card to open bank accounts, but the card has been used by residents to get a bus pass and access other services that may improve economic mobility.

New York City is now the largest U.S. city to launch a municipal ID program. IDNYC, which launched January 2015, is hoping to quantify the economic impact of their program on the local economy. The program has had the largest turnout of any municipal ID program yet. On the first day, all 17 enrollment centers in the city processed more than 1,000 applications. Due to extraordinary demand, the enrollment system is now set up to process up to one million applications annually. As of June, over 250,000 New Yorkers have received an ID, and thousands continue to apply daily. “The main goal of this card was to become an access point to the different amenities and services that the city had,” said Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

The card is proving to be a successful access point. It offers various discounts to city events (Broadway shows, sporting events), and free one-year memberships to the city’s top 33 cultural institutions. “Over 15,000 cultural institution memberships have been opened in New York City through May,” according to Agarwal. “There is a sense of an opening of doors and equalizing of access, even in respect to culture in New York City… We are hearing that these [new memberships] are working families for whom it would typically be too expensive to go to some of these institutions.”

In spite of these successes, New York City struggles with one of the original goals that launched the Elm City Resident Card in New Haven — connecting the unbanked immigrant population to the financial sector and resources. New York has not seen the same response to bank accounts as it has had to cultural institutions, according to Agarwal.

“This question about financial empowerment and inclusion is a tricky one for immigrants. Across the board, small loan programs, citizenship, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) assistance are not widely taken up,” says Agarwal. “This is an opportunity to start experimenting and explore ways in which we can link families to banking services.”

Read the rest of the June 26, 2015 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.