Cities rethink ID cards for undocumented
By Matt O'Brien
The Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), September 4, 2008
Richmond, CA — After months of drumming up support for a plan to provide city ID cards to Richmond residents, regardless of their immigration status, advocates are taking a more cautious approach: Let a bigger city try it first.
'We're letting San Francisco take the first step,' said retired teacher Antonio Medrano, member of a group that calls itself the Contra Costa County Municipal ID Task Force. 'We're sort of waiting for them to be the guinea pigs.'
But the wait keeps getting longer. Last month, San Francisco was supposed to become the first big city in the country to provide such cards, which would serve as proof of identity and residency, list allergies or emergency contacts for children, double as a library card and allow card-holders to open a checking account.
When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to approve the plan last November, proponents said it would help bring thousands of the city's undocumented out of the shadows. But concerns about cost and whether the cards would conflict with immigration law have put the program's implementation on hold.
'We are not moving (ahead) with an ID card program that is not in strict compliance with federal and state law,' said Nathan Ballard, spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Ballard said the mayor ordered city administrators to carefully review the ID plan a few weeks ago, and the results of that examination are not out yet.
In Richmond, card proponents also say the upcoming City Council election has caused them to wait and watch as a changing political landscape sorts itself out in November. The size of the council is shrinking to 7 members from nine, with several incumbents and non-incumbents fighting to regain the remaining spots.
Councilman John Marquez supports the ID card proposal as a way of encouraging more immigrants to report crimes without fear of getting in trouble, but he said that this season may not be the best time to make it happen.
'In my opinion, to push it forward right now, before the election, might be seen by some as a political an election decision,' Marquez said. 'To do it now would create those kinds of distractions.'
Medrano, who is also running for the West Contra Costa school board, said that many on the council, including Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, would support municipal identification cards. In July, Medrano said, 'The next step is for the (task force) to decide, do we take the issue before the City Council now, when we have five endorsers, or do we wait?'
The group waited. But the climate surrounding illegal immigration has not grown any less controversial, especially following summertime revelations that San Francisco's sanctuary-city policies helped shield juvenile felons from deportation.
'The majority would be probably against it at this point,' said Richmond resident Phil Mehas, another member of the task force. 'It would take some convincing.'
As evidence of the potential benefits of city ID cards, local proponents have pointed to New Haven, Conn., which pioneered municipal ID cards beginning last summer. Almost 6,000 people now hold the multi-purpose Elm City Resident Card, according to program administrator Kica Matos, who said the cards are recognized by city agenices and some banks and make many immigrants feel more secure.
'I definitely think it works,' said New Haven police Lt. Luiz Casanova, who oversees the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Fair Haven. 'From a police point of view it makes interaction with police a lot smoother and easier. One of the first questions we ask folks is, `Do you have ID?''
If there is a car accident, Casanova said, 'We can still give them a ticket for operating without a Connecticut license, but at least we know who the person is.'
But the New Haven policy has also invited its share of controversy and litigation, something that few city governments want to deal with. Officials there are now battling a freedom of information lawsuit that demands New Haven release the identities of all the people who signed up for a card.
In May, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the same group that helped draft the lawsuit against New Haven, also sued San Francisco in hopes of ending the program before it started. The institute, based in Washington, DC, is the legal branch of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates reducing legal and illegal immigration.
'They will be distributing these municipal ID cards to illegal aliens,' said Sharma Hammond, a lawyer for the institute. 'It will encourage other illegal immigrants to move to San Francisco to reap the benefits of this ID card.'
San Francisco lawyers will attempt to dismiss the lawsuit in a hearing on Sept. 23. The suit argues that the city failed to account for the environmental impacts of the ID cards, which 'will add to traffic congestion, increase water and air pollution, and increase the demand of consumption of limited natural resources in San Francisco.' It also argues that the program violates federal laws and would be an illegal expenditure of public money.
San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, one of the city's leading proponents for the ID cards, said the lawsuit will not cause city leaders to water down the program.
'We're moving forward, fully confident it can withstand any legal challenge,' Ammiano said.
McLaughlin, Richmond's mayor, was unaware of the lawsuit on Wednesday but said she also wants to move forward with an ID program that would create a 'stronger sense of self and community' in a city where about one fourth of residents are foreign-born. Unlike San Francisco, however, Contra Costa County and city governments are not consolidated, so it would be more complicated to work out a program, she said.
'It's a question of who would move this forward,' McLaughlin said. 'I would like to think that Richmond has enough of an interest to explore this and push it forward in the interest of our residents.'
Along with immigrants, McLaughlin believes that the cards would benefit the homeless and those who are too young or old to drive.
'This is really a human rights issue to allow for all individuals to access services: Things like bank accounts, ATMs (and) libraries,' she said. 'And human rights are something that have to be fought for.'
San Francisco delays rollout of ID card program
By Jason Dearen
The Associated Press, September 5, 2008