U.S. Cities Issue IDs to Protect Undocumented Immigrants

A growing number of communities have implemented municipal identification programs, and not just in politically progressive areas.
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People wait in line to be processed for their New York City municipal ID cards January 14, 2015, at a midtown library in New York.

Photo by Don Emmert/Getty Images

When Nate and his sister were children, their grandparents brought them to the U.S. from a rural farm town in Belize. They were fleeing domestic violence: Their father was a powerful government official who often threatened them.

“We came over here legally at first,” Nate recalled. “We flew over on a plane and met my mother in Oklahoma, where she already had a home and a job.”

He and his family had visas and passports, and were cleared to set foot on U.S. soil. But when he turned 18, his visa expired and he hadn’t been naturalized. Going back to Belize wasn’t a safe or feasible option for Nate (his name has been changed to protect his identity). His queer identity could put him at risk; gay intimacy was outlawed in the Central American country until 2016. Plus, he’d established a life and identity rooted in the U.S. But navigating life here without government-issued documentation has come with a different set of challenges.

In addition to the more egregious forms of oppression many undocumented immigrants face, Nate has contended with being unable to do everyday tasks, such as opening a bank account, cashing checks, and applying for jobs and housing. “I’ve found ways around it because a lot of people in my community have known me since I was a kid,” he said. Racial perceptions have also shielded him because people often assume he is Black American. But still, he says that he “would benefit greatly from having a government ID.”

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With people like Nate in mind, more than 20 U.S. cities and counties have launched municipal identification programs since 2007 to make civic engagement and day-to-day living more accessible. Several more are in the process of creating legislation that would allow residents of any immigration status to get a local government ID.

Poughkeepsie, New York, is the latest city to pass a municipal identification program into law, and the first city to do so with a Republican mayor in office. The Poughkeepsie Common Council voted unanimously in July to launch the new program, which was made possible in part by the advocacy and lobbying efforts of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, a membership-based grassroots movement combating issues faced by mostly working-class communities of color in the Hudson Valley region. For the members of the organization, the issue of safety and access for immigrants in their communities is a very personal one.

“Immigrants are under attack broadly in this country,” said Jonathan Bix, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson’s executive director. “And we have hundreds of members who are undocumented, who have problems picking their children up from school, interacting with the police, or seeing a doctor. Municipal IDs are one of the most effective measures that cities can implement to protect and empower undocumented people.”

Municipal IDs can be particularly beneficial for immigrants who lack U.S. government ID. But the identification cards can also reshape the way transgender people, the elderly, homeless individuals, and people who were formerly incarcerated live in and interact with their communities. The application process for municipal identification generally does not require people to produce the same highly specific and rigorous documentation—such as social security cards and birth certificates—needed for issuance of a state identification card. The cards also tend to allow people to self-affirm their gender identities.

However, there have been concerns about potential biases against municipal ID holders. In June, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, Pablo Villavicencio, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after showing a New York City ID card to officers while delivering pizza to an army base. Villavicencio spent 53 days in jail before being released, pending approval for a green card he had applied for in February.

It’s up to local governments to determine what their communities need and want.

To help combat such unintended outcomes, the Center for Popular Democracy has consulted with policymakers and advocates—including those from Poughkeepsie—who seek to start municipal ID programs. In 2015, the organization published a municipal ID toolkit listing a series of best practices for local governments to follow. Among them are recommendations that municipalities market the IDs to a broad range of applicants and that police departments complete training programs to ensure the legitimacy of the IDs will be acknowledged out in the field. Another of its core guidelines is for cities to avoid duplicating or retaining other documents or forms of ID that residents provide during the application process.

“The programs that are the strongest are programs that have the strongest privacy protections,” said Emily Tucker, the Center for Popular Democracy’s senior staff attorney for immigrant rights. People are more likely to enroll in these programs if they’re confident their personal information won’t be exploited. Though it may be necessary for cities to keep some kind of database to operate these programs, records should contain only minimal data: nothing that could indicate a person’s immigration status or become a tracking mechanism for poor people of color, according to Tucker. In 2017, the City of New York defeated a lawsuit that sought to compel local officials to preserve previously collected personal data from municipal ID program participants.

While there are several general principles municipalities should follow to create safe and effective ID programs, Tucker says there is no one-size-fits-all framework. “What makes sense as a model depends a lot on the population that you want to serve,” she said. It’s up to local governments to determine what their communities need and want, based on aspects that vary widely from city to city. Tucker also rejects the notion that municipal ID programs are only for large cities with progressive political persuasions. In her estimation, these programs actually err on the side of conservative pro-immigrant policy. Additionally, both cities with significant immigrant populations (like New York and Los Angeles) and towns where immigrants are less common (like Northfield, Minn.) have launched local ID programs.

In Poughkeepsie, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson has pledged to donate the materials required to produce the new IDs. The only costs to the city will be related to pay and benefits for a single, part-time employee responsible for making the cards and promotion of the program, according to Poughkeepsie Common Councilmember, Sarah Salem. The annual cost estimate sits at approximately $12,000. The program is slated to be up and running within the next six months, and will likely include benefits for patronizing participating businesses.