Big demand for NYC municipal ID cards

Largest US city joins handful of other municipalities to issue ID cards to make life easier for undocumented residents

New York City’s municipal identification card, launched Monday, quickly became a hot ticket, with thousands of residents eager to receive one lining up at distribution centers across the city — a volume that prompted city officials on Wednesday to start processing card applications by appointment only.

The nation’s largest city joins a handful of other municipalities — from San Francisco to Mercer County, New Jersey — that in recent years have issued their own ID cards to make life easier and safer for large populations of undocumented immigrants and anyone else in need of identification. Available free of charge to anyone 14 years or older in New York City, the cards also provide discounts at businesses and free access to some of the city's museums. 

“It’s something good they should have done a long time ago," Alice King, 46, originally from Trinidad but a Brooklyn resident for the last 15 years, told local news site DNAInfo. 

Based on its size alone, New York City’s program could become a model for municipal IDs in other U.S. cities, civil liberties advocates say. There are about 500,000 undocumented immigrants in New York City.

“It remains to be seen, but I think the intended effect is that New Yorkers will have a lot easier time accessing city services and being part of the economic life of the city,” said Emily Tucker, senior staff attorney with the Center for Popular Democracy, an advocacy group that published a report in 2013 hailing the use of municipal ID cards across the nation.

So far, nine U.S. municipalities issue ID cards, with most in the San Francisco or New York City metropolitan areas. Washington, D.C., has a version as well. Other cities — including Chicago and Phoenix — are looking into launching similar programs.

Supporters of municipal IDs, which were piloted in 2007 in New Haven, Connecticut, say that issuing the cards to undocumented residents fills a gap left by a lack of immigration reform in Congress.

They also say the IDs make everyone safer by allowing such residents to no longer be afraid to report crimes against them or others to police. Without identification, many undocumented immigrants fear risking deportation by speaking to authorities.

In New York City, police say they will accept the cards as an adequate form of identification, which Tucker said will “make interactions with police smoother.”

“Now police can issue a summons instead of arresting a person without ID for something like an open container violation, instead of taking them to the precinct to spend a night in jail,” she added.

The cards can help undocumented residents do simple things like open bank accounts, rent apartments, board flights and access medical help — tasks made far more difficult or even impossible without identification.

“We’ve heard of school districts where parents without ID are not able to pick up their kids from extracurricular activities,” said Layla Razavi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “These parents are part of the community.”

Still, not everyone supports municipal ID programs. Their most vocal opponents argue that by issuing cards, municipalities are flagrantly disobeying federal laws that prohibit illegal immigration, aiding the undocumented by providing IDs to people who can’t prove they’re citizens.

“We don’t know who these people really are. We have to take their word for it. It makes it more difficult to enforce federal immigration law,” said Ira Mehlmann, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that opposes the continued presence of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

“They say it’s to stop them [undocumented immigrants] from being treated like second-class citizens. It’s an oxymoron. They aren’t citizens. They don’t have a legal right to be in the country,” he added.

Mehlmann particularly fears that undocumented residents could exploit municipal ID card programs to carry out acts of violence. Although he could not point to a single instance of a city ID being used in the commission of a crime, he said, “the fact that nobody with one of these IDs has committed a terrorist act yet doesn’t mean it doesn’t pose a threat.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union has also expressed skepticism about the city’s municipal ID program, wary that authorities might misuse the information provided by undocumented residents who are some of society’s most vulnerable.

NYCLU spokeswoman Jen Carnig said that the cards could make life easier for people but that police don’t have to provide the same level of probable cause to access the municipal IDs as they do for regular driver’s licenses. She credited the city with saying it would inform people whose information police have accessed, but she argued that the protections should be as strong as they are for citizens.

“No one should be subject to having their personal documents accessed by law enforcement or become subject to an investigation based on a hunch, and it’s possible that could be the case for some people,” she said.

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