Municipal ID Cards Help Undocumented Residents, Boost Local Economies

Last week, New York City became the latest municipality to offer ID-cards for city residents, a move that eases the lives of nearly half a million undocumented residents and could provide a boost to the city’s economy.  For many Americans, the ability to provide proof of identity is taken for granted. For undocumented residents, the inability to provide proof of identity impacts nearly every aspect of their lives from being able to borrow books from a library to being able to register their child for school.

A valid photo ID lets people open bank accounts, enter into their children’s public school buildings, and establish identity when interacting with law enforcement. Municipal ID programs help more than the undocumented population. Some of the most vulnerable community members- homeless residents, youth in the foster system, low-income elderly people, formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering society, and people with mental illness and disabilities- face obstacles in obtaining necessary documentation. Municipal IDs can provide the necessary documentation for proof of identity or residency necessary for essential services.

For cities, the ID cards may increase resident’s spending and entrepreneurship, a secondary effect of having access to bank accounts. In addition, municipal IDs can ease the ability to sign leases and give access to government buildings, which could also make it easier for entrepreneurial residents to deal with regulators and other offices.

Several cities already offer their own municipal IDs, including Los Angeles, New Haven, San Francisco, Oakland, and Washington D.C. In addition, several local jurisdictions in New Jersey also offer ID cards and Richmond, CA’s program has been designed and IDs should begin being issued soon.

To maximize success, New York City’s program should ensure the highest level of privacy for applicants’ data and personal information. And, as raised by the New York Times Editorial Board, the City’s ID should also be used for discounts at museums, restaurants and other institutions to encourage the broadest level of participation so that the ID does not become de facto proof of the ID holder’s immigration status.

The New Haven example highlights both the need and the success of municipal ID programs. While not traditional considered a city with a large immigrant population, the immigrant population grew 69 percent between 1990 and 2006. Out of the 125,000 residents in the city, there are an estimated 10,000 and 15,000 undocumented residents. Without proper ID, undocumented workers were unable to open bank accounts. As a result, they became frequent targets of theft because it was widely believed that they stored large amount of cash either on at home or on their person.

Victims or witnesses to these crimes were reluctant to talk to the police for fear of being asked for identification and raise questions about their immigration status. The fear of interacting with law enforcement also deterred immigrants from reporting workplace violations, such as unlawful wage withholding. Parks and public beaches were also inaccessible without proof of ID.

When the state legislative effort to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented residents failed, New Haven’s Mayor John DeStefano launched a municipal ID initiative called the Elm City Resident’s Card in 2007. In just five months, the city issued more than 5,000 ID cards. By 2012, 10,000 residents had ID cards. Moreover, the resident card helped foster a sense of belonging and improved relationships between immigrants and law enforcement. It also made the city stronger economically with a thriving business corridor in the heart of immigrant-rich Fair Haven.

With meaningful comprehensive immigration reform at a stalemate on the federal level, issuing ID cards is a big step municipalities can take to protect their residents and provide a boost to local economies.