Joel Aguiar, director of development and communications at a Fruitvale organization called Street Level Health, has many clients who know what it means to not have a valid ID or a bank account. Day laborers are often paid in cash. No bank account means they often carry that cash around. No U.S. ID means they’re often afraid to report any crime, for fear of being deported.
That makes them easy targets for robbery—“walking ATMs,” Aguiar said.
“We routinely see at least two community members who come into our clinic, with bruises, that have been beat up and robbed—mostly day laborers,” he said.
Many undocumented immigrants in Oakland, and nationally, do not have official identification that is accepted by police, banks or even some healthcare centers.
But under a program expected to get underway this winter, Oakland has joined a handful of cities in creating a municipal ID—with one apparently unprecedented new component. Oakland’s Muni ID, if all goes according to plan, will also be usable as a debit card.
The Oakland City Council, last month, voted on the final portion of the Muni ID program, which involved securing a provider for the cards themselves. The ID cards are expected to be made available in January. Applications for the ID will be available at five non-profit organizations that will serve as enrollment centers. The cards will cost $15 each, with a $5 discount for “youth, seniors and low-income residents,” according a report prepared by the City Administrator’s office.
Residents will need an ID or passport from their country in order to be eligible for the program. Also, residents will have to provide documentation that they have lived in Oakland for more than 15 days. This residency can be verified with a utility bill, a property tax statement, an employer’s stub or a letter of proof from a city-funded homeless shelter, among other options.
Assistant City Administrator Arturo Sanchez, the Muni ID program’s project manager, said he expects about 6,000 people to apply for the cards during the first year. “And hopefully over time they can get as many as 30,000 folks” to participate in the program, he said.
The ID is intended to allow recipients to use many city services, including signing up for a library card and opening a bank account. City documents show that SF Global LLC, a company that provides financial services, has been contracted to manage the program. The University National Bank (UNB) is the provider for bank accounts. But cardholders will not be going to a UNB brick and mortar location—the bank is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Instead, SF Global is finding local merchants willing to perform “reverse debit” functions, in which individuals will be able to put up to $3,000 into their account in a single transaction.
“The idea is to convert stores that immigrants go to in the community into financial service centers,” said SF Global CEO Raul Hinojosa, whose company is meeting with Oakland merchants Thursday evening to answer questions about becoming involved in the program. “Our goal is to open up a hundred locations in Oakland.”
Oakland is the first city in the country, according to former city councilmember and program advocate Wilson Riles, to add this debit card option to its Muni ID. Recipients who have added money to their card with then be able to make purchases, which will allow them to avoid walking to the grocery store with large amounts of cash, for example. In addition, having a bank account will allow users to avoid steep rates charged by check-cashing businesses.
“Municipal identification cards are really just sound policies to integrate immigrants into our community,” said Gabriela Villareal, Policy Manager for the California Immigration Policy Center.
To protect against fraud, a text message will be sent to users’ phones every time a purchase is made. A PIN will be required to withdraw cash, and cardholders will have access to a 24-hour hotline to report a stolen or lost card. The card will not serve as a driver’s license. There is no law requiring that it be recognized outside of the city.
In Los Angeles, where the city council made national headlines after approving its own local version of an ID card earlier this month, officials are modeling their program on Oakland’s. “The Oakland model appears to be the most secure and economically feasible,” declared a November report to the Los Angeles council.
Jossué, an 18 year-old painter living in the Fruitvale area, said last weekend that he plans to apply for the municipal ID in order to have access to a bank account (he declined to give his last name due to the sensitivity of the issue). Jossué is from Mexico, and said a debit card would add important levels of security. “If there is a robbery, one can report the card stolen,” Jossué said in Spanish. “But when cash is stolen there is no way to retrieve it.”
Riles said the program is not meant only for undocumented immigrants, but for anyone in the city who needs an ID. For example, there are many African Americans who do not have IDs or bank accounts and may greatly benefit from the program, he said. “With everyone having a city ID card,” Riles said, “it becomes a strong symbol of togetherness, of a whole complete community.”
Oakland will become one of a handful of cities around the country with similar programs, including New Haven, Connecticut; Trenton, New Jersey; Los Angeles, San Francisco and Richmond (both L.A. and Richmond are still in the planning phase). These ID card programs have built momentum in helping fight crime in immigrant communities, Riles said, citing New Haven as an especially successful example.
Crime reporting “has increased substantially” since that city’s ID program was implemented, declared a summer 2102 press release from the city of New Haven, marking the fifth year of the program. “Crime has dropped by double digits,” the release said.
Each city has its own variation of the IDs. Some double as library cards; others allow recipients to apply for local healthcare services.
Oakland officials had worried about an ID program costing the city money, but Sanchez said the debit component means much of card’s production cost will be passed on to the bank provider. UNB will charge the users a 2-3 percent transaction fee, he said.
The card will show the owner’s name and address, along with a photo of the cardholder. The plan keeps the applicant’s information from becoming a public record, thereby keeping it unavailable to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Instead, the information will be held by UNB, which is supposed to protect the information under conventional banking privacy laws, Sanchez said.
Some advocacy groups opposed to the easing of immigration restrictions have actively objected to this new form of identification. Bob Dane, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts-based organization Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in an email that more IDs is not the answer to what his organization regards as a problem of inadequately enforced immigration laws.
“We already have ID cards—a whole bunch of them,” Dane wrote. These IDs should be reserved for persons here with documentation, he argued: “Driver’s licenses, social security cards, green cards, visas and passports…If immigrants do things the right way, they get one that lets them in the front door and gives them the full rights and privileges of membership into American society.”
But Aguiar said that while he hopes for immigration reform—and a path to citizenship for migrants already in the U.S.—this card is a step in the right direction.
Cities need to “take leadership in these types of policies,” he said, “because it really sends a message, not only to its own community members within that city, but also to California policy makers.”
Victor, a 41 year-old Fruitvale gardener who, declined to give his full name, said he plans to apply for the municipal ID as soon as it is available. He said he believes it will help during encounters with law enforcement. “If the police ask for an identity at any point, we have a way to respond,” Victor said in Spanish.
“It’s very good.” Victor said of the card. “We have been waiting for this for a long time.