In May 2012, Tania Mattos took out her bicycle and went for a ride in Corona, Queens. It had been a while since she’d been on a bike, and when she got frightened of the speeding cars, she rode onto the sidewalk instead. It wasn’t long before a pair of cops stopped her for violating New York City traffic laws.
“I was so scared,” Mattos said. At 30 years old, she is an immigrant and labor rights organizer, but after having been brought to the United States by her parents from Boliva when she was a child, she was undocumented at the time of the encounter. “The cops asked me for ID, and I told them I didn’t have one, none at all — I ended up telling them my entire life story. In the end they let me go, but I think it’s only because they felt bad for me, because I’m a girl and I spoke English well.
“I have a prior deportation order, and if I would’ve been taken into jail they would’ve seen that. I would’ve been deported.”
Valid identification is a requirement for many aspects of modern New York City life, from accessing public spaces and services to opening bank accounts, signing lease agreements and often, dealing with the police. As deportations continue at a high rate nationwide and immigration reform remains stalled at the federal level, New York has become the latest city to take immigration issues into its own hands.
A bill introduced in April by City Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn and Daniel Dromm of Queens, and supported by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, proposes to create a municipal ID card for all New York City residents, regardless of legal status. Based on similar programs put in place in cities such as New Haven and San Francisco in the last several years, the card would include basic identifying information such as photograph, name, date of birth and address. To issue it, the city would accept a wide variety of documents proving identity — including foreign passports, consular IDs and military service cards — and residency.
The estimated half million undocumented immigrants who live in the city are widely seen as the primary beneficiaries of a municipal ID, but other groups stand to benefit as well, including transgender people, the homeless, youth, the low-income elderly and those reintegrating into society after incarceration.
“The idea of having the security and the confidence that comes with having an ID that you know is accepted by municipal government and authorities is a big benefit that people are excited about,” said Daniel Coates, a lead organizer of the municipal ID campaign with Make the Road New York. Once the idea — after being introduced but failing to gain traction in 2007 — garnered momentum during the 2013 mayoral campaign, the group built a diverse coalition that includes local immigrant, LGBT, homeless and other rights groups to advocate the issue.
“We’re being very intentional about building this, and working with the city to build it in such a way that it maintains that confidence,” said Coates. Creating confidence is perhaps most crucial in relation to law enforcement. The possibility of encounters with the police, like the one Mattos found herself in while riding her bicycle, represents a real and inescapable fear for many undocumented immigrants. Not being able to present valid identification can lead to arrest and then, detention and deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the federal Secure Communities program. Immigration advocates behind the bill hope that if passed and implemented, the ID will be respected by police officers and provide immigrants some measure of protection.
“It can mean the difference between getting deported or not,” said Mattos. “It’s a really very difficult, very tumultuous time for undocumented immigrants. We’re being deported at really high rates, and so something like an ID can mean the world of a difference for a family.”
The draft bill introduced in City Council also creates the option of self-designating one’s gender. Transgender people disproportionately face discrimination in obtaining jobs and housing, entering public spaces such as bathrooms and in encounters with police, especially when their gender presentation does not match the gender stated on their IDs. The process of getting gender-affirming identity documents is lengthy, expensive and for many, due to “medical documentation” requirements, out of reach.
“It is such a powerful intervention,” said Elana Redfield, the director of the Survival and Self-Determination Project at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. “It’s going to make a huge difference in people’s ability to participate in the economy, to access public spaces, to show this ID when they get stopped by the police, if that happens.” She hopes that the municipal ID will also be accepted as a foundational document in applications for other forms of identification, such as driver’s licenses, passports or birth certificates.
Devil in the Details
Despite all that a municipal ID can offer, it can also carry risks. “Implementation is going to be really important — the devil is in the details,” cautioned Johanna Miller, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
One of the primary concerns among immigrants and advocates is how to prevent the card from becoming a “scarlet letter” for the undocumented or any other marginalized group of people. As the logic goes, it is necessary to bring the card into widespread use among all New York City residents, so that members of vulnerable groups cannot be immediately identified as such — and then potentially face discrimination or harassment — when they use the card.
“It’s only going to be successful if we’re able to make it an ID for everybody,” Coates said.
Cities that have already created a local ID card have used a range of incentives to make the card attractive to all residents, with varying success. These include partnering with public institutions and local businesses to create special benefits or discounts for users of the card, building the ID to double as a debit, library or transportation card and more. As The Indypendent went to press, hearings for the bill introduced by Councilmembers Menchaca and Dromm were slated to begin on April 30. If the legislation is passed, it will be up to the mayor’s office to implement the program and establish the necessary incentives.
Protecting the privacy of ID card users will be crucial. Shortly after New Haven’s rollout of its municipal ID card in 2007 — the first such program in the nation — an anti-immigration group now known as the Community Watchdog Project attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to obtain the names of all individuals who had been issued the card through Freedom of Information Act requests.
“The city of New Haven had a nightmare scenario,” Miller said. However, she feels confident that the proposed bill has the necessary privacy protections to prevent a similar situation. In administering the ID program, the city would not retain the identifying documents that people would submit with their applications and treat the information as confidential.
Life Without an ID
Exactly how much of a relief this ID would be to immigrants, and what kind of momentum it might provide on other immigration issues on the city and state levels, remains to be seen.
“I feel like people have learned how to cope without having an ID,” said immigrant rights activist Marco Saavedra. Born in Mexico and raised in Washington Heights, Saavedra was among the Dream 9 activists who infiltrated the Florida-based Broward immigrant detention center in 2012 and the undocumented youth who crossed into Mexico and attempted to legally re-enter the United States in summer 2013. He mentions that while it may not be perfectly convenient, many services in the city are still within reach for undocumented immigrants; those include bank accounts with Chase and CitiBank, which accept foreign passports and consular IDs.
“Hopefully the municipal ID serves as leverage to push for more things, instead of a superficial remedy,” he said. For his part, Saavedra would prefer to see concrete policies further limiting NYPD and ICE cooperation and establishing universal attorney representation for detained immigrants. Meanwhile, nationally, 15 states have passed some version of the Dream Act, which grants undocumented college students varying access to in-state tuition rates and financial aid, 11 states allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and consideration for these and other measures is underway elsewhere. In comparison, New York’s record on progressive immigration policy is paltry.
“We’re catching up,” Mattos said. But while prospects for citywide immigration initiatives have brightened since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, significant — and controversial — state policies may still be out of reach. “In New York you can’t even pass the New York Dream Act, because the state government is completely broken. If the New York Dream Act isn’t going to pass, driver’s licenses aren’t going to pass.”