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Oakland considers controversial municipal ID cards

on October 12, 2008


The cards would look much like any other ID card—driver’s license, student or employee ID—that people use in Oakland every day. The new cards would display a photo, name, and address; a magnetic strip would run across the back. And these cards, issued by the City of Oakland, would be available to illegal immigrants—and could cause the kind of controversy that has erupted over similar programs in San Francisco and New Haven, Conn.

The proposed municipal ID card plan, recently submitted to Oakland City Councilmember Jean Quan (District 4) by a group called the Oakland City ID Card Coalition, envisions the cards being used by a wide variety of people who might have trouble obtaining traditional forms of ID. This would include not only undocumented immigrants but also the homeless and runaway youth—anyone who can’t apply for a California driver’s license or ID card, for example, because they don’t have the necessary original or certified documents.

One possible design for the Oakland ID card under consideration

One possible design for the Oakland ID card under consideration

Under the proposal, cardholders could use the IDs to open bank accounts. While many banks accept the Matrícula Consular or other forms of foreign identification, these are not available to all immigrants due to cost or to individual countries’ policies. The proposal also states that cardholders could use the IDs “for access and discounts to city institutions.”

But a primary purpose of municipal IDs, both supporters and opponents of the concept say, is the recognition of immigrants living here illegally. “A municipal ID card is basically an attempt by the municipality to allow everyone regularly marginalized by society to have an official document that says, ‘I’m part of this community,’” said Marc-Tizoc González, a staff attorney at Alameda County’s Homeless Action Center and member of the ID Card Coalition.

Sharma Hammond, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, which has challenged municipal IDs in New Haven and San Francisco, says that’s not the point. “Encouraging illegal immigrants to move to cities and feel free, or complacent, to live there blatantly violates federal law,” she said. “We see that as a problem.”

Because so much attention is focused on illegal immigrants’ access to the cards, the Oakland City ID Card Coalition, formed in March to promote an Oakland card program, hopes to make them appeal to a wide range of Oakland residents. Broad adoption of the cards would “make sure it’s not just an identifier for the groups of people we’re trying to help,” said Centro Legal de la Raza staff attorney Jesse Newmark, who drafted the Coalition proposal.

Local students, for example, could benefit from the card, Coalition members say. Their discussions with area schools including the Peralta Community College District, which endorsed the ID card plan in June, have focused on using the Oakland ID cards in place of current student IDs or in schools that can’t afford to produce their own student IDs, which is the case in many Oakland elementary schools. “From the card vendors I’ve talked to,” said Wilson Riles, Coalition member and former Oakland City Council member, “you can set up the card to hold a whole lot of information, so you can have the information the school needs and have whatever additional information the city needs all in the same card.”

“There’s no streamlined process” for undocumented students to enroll at local colleges, said Coalition member and Mills College graduate María Dominguez. Right now, she said, undocumented students use whatever records they may have from high school or from their home countries. Having one standard, verified ID would simplify their applications, she said. “A lot of students would feel more confident to enroll in school.”

Coalition members say a wide range of cardholder benefits would also encourage broad adoption of the card. Cardholders could get discounted admission to the zoo and city museums or to local sports events. In New Haven, where over 6,000 city ID cards have been issued since June of last year, some businesses provide discounts or promotions for cardholders. The Coalition is also meeting with local banks and credit unions to discuss the possibility of using Oakland ID cards as debit cards for parking meters and at participating local businesses.

The Coalition’s proposal argues that the cards would also increase public safety. For example, they suggest, if undocumented immigrants could use the cards to open bank accounts, they would no longer have to carry around the large amounts of cash that make them frequent targets of crime.

Coalition members also argue that the cards would improve public safety by “facilitating citizen-police contact.” They say that currently undocumented immigrants may be reluctant to report crimes and housing or labor violations to the police because they fear arrest or being turned over to federal immigration authorities. “The problem is a perceived notion out there that if they report a crime they might get deported,” said Oakland Police Department spokesperson Jeff Thomason.

However, Thomason pointed out that Oakland is a sanctuary city, where police officers are not supposed to report an individual’s legal status to federal authorities. “If people are victims of crime, if they call the police, we are going to investigate that crime whether you’re a legal resident or not a legal resident,” he said. “We don’t questions people’s legal status in Oakland. I’ve been here 10 years and we’ve never done that.”

Coalition member Jesse Newmark maintains that the perception of danger is still very real within Oakland’s immigrant community. “The idea that immigrants feel that they’re safe in Oakland or can talk to police, that just doesn’t exist,” he said. “People are scared, and people don’t feel like they’re part of a community.”

If the OPD accepts Oakland ID cards as valid, Newmark argues, immigrants would feel more secure going to the police for help. “If you’re issued an ID card officially by the city, people will feel safe because the city has officially recognized them, and they’ll see that the police will as well,” he said. “Nothing works like something concrete.”

How to pay for a citywide card program is a key concern for the Coalition, especially during the current budget woes. New Haven’s ID card program, so far the only program in the country to be implemented, was funded in its first year by a private grant of approximately $250,000. The program’s second year is currently being funded by grants from three major foundations.

While there is no official estimate for an Oakland ID card program, estimates for the cost of implementing San Francisco’s program range from $500,000 to $3 million.

“The costs would be significantly lower than San Francisco,” said Michael Johnson, policy advisor to Councilmember Quan. “San Francisco has a law on the books that says they can’t destroy records under any circumstances, so they had to buy a very expensive machine to make the cards.”

Not maintaining records of cardholders’ information is San Francisco’s strategy for addressing privacy concerns. If anti-immigration organizations or the federal government demanded access to cardholder information, as one group did in New Haven, the city wouldn’t have the information to give. In New Haven’s case, the court denied that group’s Freedom of Information request, based on prior threats of violence in the community toward cardholders.

Broad adoption of the cards, Newmark said, could also help protect cardholders’ privacy. Cardholder information would be “worthless” to groups hoping to target illegal immigrants because so many people, legal residents included, would carry the IDs.

While Coalition members say there are no signs yet of organized local opposition to the Oakland cards, national anti-immigration groups could become involved locally. The Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) assisted the recent Freedom of Information request for New Haven cardholder records, and has sued the City of San Francisco over its ID card program.

In the San Francisco lawsuit, due for a hearing on Oct. 3, IRLI argues that the card program carries unstudied environmental impacts and is an illegal expenditure of taxpayer funds. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, IRLI attorney Sharma Hammond argues, the ID card program must undergo an environmental impact study. “San Francisco, by explicitly and openly distributing municipal ID cards to illegal aliens, will have a growth-inducing impact by encouraging illegal aliens to move to this locality and reap the benefits of this ID card,” she said.

“For an illegal immigrant who has no linked identity to the U.S., to receive a government-issued ID card is a benefit in itself” and will “act as an attractant,” Hammond said. That population growth would affect traffic and consumption of natural resources and put strains on the city’s environment, she argues.

The San Francisco cards, Hammond says, would also allow illegal immigrants to be classified as residents without being approved for legal residency under federal law. That, she argues, makes the program an unacceptable use of tax dollars. Centro Legal attorney Newmark responds that these federal restrictions extend only to states, not to municipalities.

In September, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom put the city’s ID card program on hold, pending further review of its legality.

Marc-Tizoc González says the Oakland Coalition is watching the San Francisco lawsuit very closely. If the judge rules that an environmental review is necessary, the Coalition will ask that the City of Oakland address environmental concerns.

Contra Costa and Marin counties are also following developments in New Haven and San Francisco, say Coalition members. Those two counties have been considering municipal ID cards, as has Los Angeles. Councilmember Quan’s staff is currently reviewing the Oakland proposal, which could come before the City Council within the next few months. If it does, there will likely be much more discussion—of both municipal ID cards and also of immigration policy as a whole.

“Cities have thus far been able to openly and blatantly defy federal immigration law without any repercussions,” Sharma Hammond said, referring to sanctuary city ordinances. If municipal ID cards are allowed in New Haven and San Francisco, “it would have that domino effect,” she said. “Other cities would want to follow suit.”

Oakland City ID Card Coalition members, however, see a challenge to federal law as a positive step. “Of course the federal government has the right to regulate immigration,” said Marc-Tizoc González. “But there are constitutional rights to due process for every person,” regardless of citizenship.

The practical value of the cards, González says, goes hand in hand with their symbolic expression of solidarity between the city and its residents—legal or not. “It’s difficult for those of us secure in our citizenship status to think about not being able to prove who you are with one little card,” he said. “To be able to say, ‘Here’s who I am.’”

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Related Links:
Oakland City ID Card Coalition
Immigration Reform Law Institute
San Francisco ID card program
IRLI suit against San Francisco (download PDF)||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

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