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Municipal ID Cards Given To Undocumented Immigrants In Cities Across The U.S. With Varied Success

Undocumented Immigrants

First Posted: 10/24/11 08:52 AM ET Updated: 12/21/11 05:12 AM ET

In the eyes of the federal government, Carlos is still an undocumented immigrant.

But four years ago, the city of New Haven, Conn., issued Carlos -- his real name has been changed at his request due to privacy concerns -- its own form of documentation: a municipal ID. The ID allowed him, for the first time, to open a bank account, apply for hospital services, check out library books, access city beaches and parks and even take a cross-country flight.

"We feel like we've been given an identity in the United States," Carlos said.

New Haven has issued nearly 7,500 ID cards like it since their introduction in 2007, according to city spokesperson Adam Joseph. Known as the Elm City Resident Card, New Haven's municipal ID has spurred similar efforts in other so-called "sanctuary cities" around the country since its inception. Sanctuary cities, which date to the late 1970s, are known as such for adopting practices aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants.

Carlos, who has lived in New Haven for seven years and makes his living as a farm hand, said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post that the card made life easier because he has no way of gaining legal status under current law.

"Once I was flying to Chicago, and they asked me for my passport from my home country, and I gave it to them," he said. "But, they wanted another form of identification, and I was able to present them with my resident card. I was able to get on the flight with it."

In the absence of federal immigration reform, some state and municipal governments have sought to take the immigration question into their own hands. As states such as Alabama and Georgia strengthen their immigration laws, some municipalities around the country have adopted a softer stance on the issue.

This week, Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray signed an executive order barring police and city agencies from asking people about their immigration status, saying that immigration enforcement is a federal, not a local, matter. The order also bars police from holding anyone for longer than 48 hours unless federal agencies have a court order.

Earlier this month, Dayton, Ohio, unveiled the "Welcome Dayton Plan" aimed at making the city the "friendliest place for immigrants." The plan proposes that police only run immigration status checks when people are suspected of serious crime. It also calls for the creation of a municipal ID card for residents that would resemble cards issued in at least seven other cities, including Trenton, San Francisco and New Haven.

While municipal ID cards do not grant legal residency or the right to work, Carlos said they help improve the lives of those without legal status.

"I honestly use it at least once during the week," he said. "And maybe one or two times on the weekend. It's the only form of identification we really have while we're here."

Not everyone agrees. Steve Salvi, founder of the Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC, has said it is wrong to "make life easier" for undocumented immigrants who are here in violation of federal law. Salvi argues that "sanctuary policies" create a "safe haven ... for illegal aliens involved in a variety of criminal enterprises," according to his website, which provides a list of so-called "sanctuaries."

But New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said the Elm City Resident Card was a "fundamental acknowledgement of an individual's worth and dignity." On the night the Elm City initiative passed, DeStefano delivered an impassioned speech about the card.

"Living among us today -- silently, almost invisibly, are some 12 million men, women, and children," he said in the speech. "They would not be here but for the complicit permission of the national government. ... So tonight we have a chance to end the silent complicity in our nation -- by taking action together."

Trouble In The Cards

While some immigrant rights advocates say the ID cards have made New Haven a better place for Latino immigrants, some worry that the card could be used to identify undocumented immigrants.

Father James Manship of St. Rose of Lima Church, one of New Haven's largest Latino parishes, said in an interview with The Huffington Post that a local "anti-immigrant group" tried to obtain the names of people who were issued the cards -- Latinos in particular -- in order to turn them over to federal immigration authorities.

In 2008, immigration opponents filed a Freedom of Information request seeking the names, addresses and photos of card holders. State authorities in Harford rejected the request, citing privacy and safety concerns.

Carlos, who has carried an Elm City Resident Card since its introduction in 2007, said members of the Latino community were initially skeptical of the card.

"It was worrisome at first, I suppose, because the only reason you'd need the card is if you can't get another form of identification," he said. "There is always doubt, but no one bothers us now when we have it."

A study conducted in 2008 by researchers at Yale University uncovered another shortcoming of the card. According to researcher Paul Lagunes, who headed the study with Ruth Ditlmann, an "essentially bogus" identification card was accepted at higher rates than the Elm City Resident Card during trials in New Haven.

To qualify for the official municipal ID, applicants must show valid government-issued photo identification, such as a passport, and prove residency in New Haven with utility bills, pay stubs, tax statements or health and social-service agency documents, according to The Economist.

When holders of the New Haven card were Latinos, Lagunes and Ditlmann found that the fake card was accepted 73 percent of the time, compared to 68 percent for the Elm City Resident Card.

Still, Lagunes said his team found a great need for the card, especially for undocumented Latinos. He said his team found Latinos were more likely to be asked for identification than non-Latinos.

"New Haven introduced a policy to welcome immigrants in its midst, and provide them with a way of identifying themselves -- which is absolutely necessary, because Latinos, as we found, are carded more frequently in the city," Lagunes said.

Carlos said the card has removed some of the worry from his life. "For many of us, it's given us a certain sense of tranquility, he said. "We can live as integrated citizens, and not isolated ones."

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