Oakland begins issuing municipal IDs to benefit the undocumented community

A mock-up of the Oakland Muni ID card.

A mock-up of the Oakland Muni ID card.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon in Fruitvale, a group of people chatted nervously in a stark, white room as they waited for someone to look over their electricity bill or rental agreement in exchange for something many had never had: a clean, new identification card with their name and photo.

Oakland began issuing municipal IDs on Feb. 19 to all city residents. The ID, which also has an optional debit function that works like a prepaid MasterCard, will allow undocumented people living in Oakland some way to identify themselves.

Almost everyone sitting in the waiting area of the Spanish Speaking Citizens’ Center had the same thing to say: “I am so grateful to this beautiful country for giving me this opportunity.” The new policy benefits undocumented Latinos, a group that receives few protections in the United States. “There’s not much help for us here,” said Maria Flores, an Oakland resident from Mexico who was waiting in line for a card. She previously had only a consular ID from her home country and came with her husband Marcos, who was clutching not one but two copies of the how-to brochure.

The Oakland City ID Card was proposed in 2008 by a coalition of nonprofit organizations, small businesses and Oakland citizens. The proposal was approved last October and pre-registration started Feb. 1. Inspired by ID programs in cities like New Haven, Conn. and San Francisco, the Oakland coalition’s goal was to facilitate an easier relationship between the undocumented and the police.

Undocumented immigrants are often targeted for violent crime because criminals know they are less likely to report crimes and often carry large amounts of cash, said Jesse Newmark, the interim executive director of Centro Legal. “The fact that undocumented immigrants are afraid to report crimes is bad for everyone’s public safety,” Newmark said.

A lawyer, Newmark once helped a man who had been beaten and shot apply for a U-Visa – a temporary legal status and work eligibility specifically for victims of crime. The reason behind the assault: his attackers knew he had cash on him. The man said he wanted to open a bank account to avoid these types of problems, but hadn’t been able to present sufficient documents.

Newmark also said that when immigrants turn to check cashing businesses to receive their wages, a large cut of their money is taken out. That, in turn, hurts the local economy and immigrant households, he said. ID holders will be able to deposit money directly into their accounts. The ID will benefit even non-cardholders in Oakland, Newmark said, because it will empower undocumented immigrants to speak up when they see housing violations, health and safety issues in the workplace and broader discrimination.

And for some, like a small, quiet woman named Maria, who would only give her first name, the ID represents a step toward legitimate legal status down the line. “We can only hope that in later years there will be some kind of immigration reform for us, the undocumented,” she said. “Because there’s a lot of discrimination.”

Newmark agreed that the ID serves as a symbol of inclusion.

“The ID is a wonderful symbol of Oakland, saying we’re all Oakland residents,” he said. “That whatever the federal stance on immigration, or people’s legal status, they can still feel recognized as part of the community where they live.”

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