NEW YORK —Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation last month creating municipal identification cards for half a million undocumented immigrants living in New York City, a move hailed by government officials and advocacy groups as a “huge milestone” to expand benefits for immigrants and protect their rights.
But many questions about the ambitious program are still left unanswered, and apprehensions in ethnic communities here, including Filipinos, seem to mount.
For one, to obtain a municipal ID card, applicants will be required to present their passport, birth certificate, government benefit card, social security or tax ID number. These personal documents could disclose their immigration status.
And although the city is prohibited from retaining the applicants’ personal documents in hard copy or digital format, the information to be collected will be entered in a government database.
“You may have the identification card, but you may feel like you’re walking around with a stamp on your forehead that you’re undocumented,” said Linda Oalican, overall coordinator for DAMAYAN, a grassroots group led by Filipino women domestic workers. “Before applying for the card, we highly encourage our members to think [thoroughly] about it.”
Backed by majority of New York City council members, the municipal ID initiative was passed on June 26. It will be implemented in January 2015.
The city government has yet to decide on how the card would look like. Advocates say it may be different from the current New York state ID card, which could easily distinguish the holder’s immigration status.
“For now, this card will be valid. After the elections and another mayor could be elected, the next administration could abolish it,” added Oalican. “What will happen then to those who have already submitted their personal information and divulged their immigration status?”
It will be compulsory for all government agencies in the five boroughs, such as police, public schools, hospitals and public libraries, to accept the municipal card as a valid form of identification. However, it will only work within New York City, which means that the administered cardholders cannot use it when boarding an aircraft.
Philippine and other foreign passports are accepted to get through a US airport security. However, airports with border patrol could verify whether the holder of the passport has a valid American visa.
A legal suicide?
In his cluttered apartment in Queens, New York, that he shares with a roommate, Romy, a 39-year-old undocumented Filipino immigrant, is skeptical about the upcoming municipal ID cards.
Despite the difficulties of not having any form of government-issued identification card, he says, will not apply for a municipal ID when it takes effect next year.
“I would be very stupid if I get that identification card,” he said in Tagalog, expressing his concerns. “That’s like committing suicide.”
Hoping that Pres. Barack Obama will do something to address the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Romy adds that he will just wait for “bigger” and “surer” immigration legislation for him to disclose his immigration status.
As the congressional recess looms in August, the House and Senate lawmakers are still at a deadlock in addressing the border crisis and a bipartisan immigration reform remains in political limbo.
But speculations have spread out this week that the Obama administration might act on its own to grant work permits to millions of immigrants who are in this country illegally.
“I’m not the only [undocumented] Filipino who believes that it [municipal ID] is too risky,” Romy added. “I have already sacrificed a lot, waited for so long— and I know that it [immigration reform] will happen soon.”
Significance of municipal ID
According to New York City Commissioner Nisha Agarwal, the biggest advantage of holding a municipal ID is the protections that it will provide for most vulnerable individuals.
“If the police stopped an undocumented immigrant for a minor driving violation, the person can show the ID and would only get a ticket,” Agarwal said. “But if the person could not show any form of identification card, the officer can verify his or her personal information and alert immigration services.”
Agarwal assured that the city would protect individuals’ confidentiality “by destroying any documents the city holds after two years.” She added that any access to those documents from law enforcement would be subject to a judicial warrant or subpoena.
Other proponents of the municipal cards believe that, based on similar programs around the country, it will improve how New Yorkers interact with government agencies and law enforcement.
“This is progressive policy at its best,” said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, the national advocacy organization that released the influential report, Who We Are: Municipal I.D. Cards as a Local Strategy to Promote Belonging and Shared Community Identity. “It will enable more families and households to participate in economic and civic life.”
For Juan Carlos Gomez, an undocumented Latino immigrant, he knows from his own experience how he avoids an interaction with police officers because he does not have a government-issued ID.
“I know what it is to not have an ID and I know this card will go a long way to building trust and confidence with immigrant communities and local authorities,” he said. “We are glad to have taken this critical step and towards a stronger, more unified New York City.”
Even some members of the transgender community, like Amo France, also concurred. She says that the identification program will prevent discrimination and reduce life-threatening events for transgender New Yorkers.
“I am relieved that we will finally be able to get an ID that reflects our gender,” France added. “For far too long, the barriers to obtaining official identification with the correct gender marker, including miles of red tape and cost, has put our livelihoods and even lives at risk.”
Last week, to broaden the appeal of the card, the de Blasio administration asked some of the city’s museums and cultural institutions to offer free memberships or discounted tickets for municipal ID holders.
Those institutions that have been asked, according to reports, are “seriously considering the proposal” and will have a decision in the coming weeks.
New York will not be the first city to issue a municipal identification card for undocumented immigrants and those on temporary visas— and not the first one as well to try adding benefits into identity cards to entice more applicants and alleviate any potential stigma.
In 2008, San Francisco, CA, introduced identity cards that offer discounts at the city’s golf courses, museums and participating restaurants.
Despite the perks, according to a New York Times report, “only a small fraction of the city’s 825,000 residents have signed up for the card,” though the city officials have been pleased with the results.
In New Haven, CT, municipal ID cards were also issued in 2007, and will soon be loadable for downtown parking and shopping.
“The success of this [New York I.D.] program hinges on the city’s ability to keep people’s private information private— and not entered into an electronic database where it could become the target of identity theft or shared with other city agencies,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director for NYCLU. “All applicants must be shielded from both unscrupulous people and federal agencies [that] might seek an undocumented individual’s identity data.”