Jul 17 2:37 PM

NYC ID: Big help or Big Brother?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signs into law a bill establishing a municipal identification program.
Bebeto Matthews / AP

One of my first projects as a newly minted lawyer in New York was to support a coalition of activists pushing for a city-issued ID. It was 2007, and New Haven, Connecticut had just created the Elm City Resident Card following historic, nationwide marches for immigrant rights. This controversial, first-ever local ID has since given 12,000 New Havenites — including undocumented immigrants and others lacking the right paperwork for drivers’ licenses — a shot at the mundane activities of daily life: taking a walk through town, paying for parking, entering public buildings, checking out library books and opening a bank account. San Francisco and a few other cities also issue municipal IDs.

In late June, the New York City Council passed a bill establishing the “NYC ID,” to the delight of advocates for the homeless, undocumented immigrants and transgender communities. But at a hearing following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bill-signing on July 9, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), while supportive of the ID in principle, opposed the law as written: It permits the city, for up to two years at a time, “to copy and store people’s most sensitive documentation,” including social security numbers and pay stubs, which police and other authorities could request “without having to show probable cause.” (The standard for a subpoena, “relevant to a criminal investigation,” is much lower.) A New York Times editorial underscored the NYCLU’s concerns.

Immigrant rights groups disagree. “It’s completely safe and secure,” said Betsy Plum, outreach coordinator at the New York Immigration Coalition. “There are so many checks in place — the documents are with [the issuing city agency] and can only be requested by judicial warrant or subpoena. There are other privacy protections we can figure out in the rulemaking process, but these are people that are not protected [from the police] without an ID.” Plum sees document-retention as necessary to prevent fraud and believes that, absent this provision, the New York Police Department would not have agreed to accept the card as valid identification.

A related privacy debate revolved around New Haven’s Elm City Resident Card. “Shortly after the passage of the bill, an anti-immigrant group actually [requested via freedom-of-information laws] all of the records. They asked for names, addresses, documentation and country of birth,” recalled Nicole Hallett, clinical fellow at Yale Law School. The state’s refusal of that request was eventually upheld by Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission, on the grounds “that disclosure of the names, addresses and photographs of the ID Card applicants may cause a risk of physical harm to the applicants.”

“We want [the NYC] program to be safe for people,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director of the NYCLU. While she isn’t concerned about bulk disclosure to private parties, she emphasizes that neither the state Department of Motor Vehicles nor certain licensing divisions retain application documents. In the six months of public comment and rulemaking ahead, the NYCLU, she said, will encourage the city to find “other ways to protect people’s information — for example, making a requirement that, if your records are subpoenaed, the agency has to notify you.”

In New York City, municipal IDs will likely be a card of last resort for those barred from procuring a driver’s license or for residents who, for reasons of poverty or changed gender, face obstacles in doing so. Twelve states and the District of Columbia currently offer or are in the process of offering driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. But in Connecticut, home to New Haven’s Elm City Resident Card, undocumented drivers will have to carry a special license labeled “for driving purposes only,” potentially deterring applicants.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s legislative priority for immigrants, he has said, is a DREAM Act giving undocumented college students access to state financial aid. (That bill, which died in the state senate last March, will have to be reintroduced.) He has said nothing about the more radical New York is Home Act — which conveys a broad range of state citizenship rights, including driver’s licenses, to non-citizens — and, therefore, has little chance of being passed.


New York
Immigration, Privacy

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