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A City ID Card for All

by Larry Tung, Sep 10, 2007
 

M. Zywicka started working as a hostess in an Italian restaurant in Murray Hill just a month after she arrived in New York. A native of Krakow, Poland, Zywicka (who does not want her full name used) came to New York on a tourist visa in June. Like countless foreigners living in this expensive city, she struggles to support herself by working off the books. But she has to be careful with the cash she earns because she doesn’t have the identification needed to open a bank account.

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“ I pay everything in cash,” said Zywicka. “Sometimes I use my Polish credit card but I don’t like it because the service charge is too expensive.” Not having an ID also prevents her from getting a regular cell phone. ”I have to use a pre-paid phone so I don’t get those free minutes at night and on the weekend,” she said.

In an effort to help people like Zywicka gain access to services that require an ID, City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate of Queens wants the city to issue IDs to anyone who wants one, including undocumented immigrants. He is sponsoring a bill, the Municipal Identification Card Program Act or Intro 602, to accomplish this.

“The City of New York is home to 8 million people, many of them immigrants and some of them frankly, undocumented,” said Monserrate. “Some of them have been residents of the city for many years, and to give them a basic ID card that’s valid within the city limits only makes sense.”

“ It is my hope that this card will be the city’s first step in using the benefits of technology to allow residents not only access to public safety resources, but more convenient and stream-lined services,” he added.

A Card for the Undocumented

The proposed local law would require the city's Human Rights Commission to create a New York City Municipal Identification Card, which would feature a resident's name, address and photo. Applicants would need to provide only proof of identity and residency within New York City. They would not have to disclose their immigration status. Currently the standard form of identification is a driver's license or a non-driver’s license identification card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. To get that kind of identification, an applicant must present a Social Security number or tax identification number and other government-issued documents.

Monserrate’s proposed ID card would allow holders to take out library books and would help emergency workers identify them in case of an emergency. Also, undocumented immigrants with the ID will be able to report crimes and take advantage of city services they are entitled to but need an ID to obtain.

The proposal is partly inspired by the City of New Haven, which became the first city to provide IDs to undocumented immigrants in July. Within about a month, it issued about 3,000 cards. The card, called the Elm City Resident Card, costs $10 for adults and $5 for children, and has a debit card feature that can be used in municipal parking lots and participating stores.

According to the New Haven Independent, an online news publication, several municipalities from around the country are looking at similar proposals, including Miami-Dade County and cities in California, Nevada, Kentucky, Maryland, Wisconsin and Arizona.

Removing Barriers…

Monserrate, a former police officer, said the proposal shares the spirit of the city's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prohibits city employees from asking residents for confidential information, including immigration status, and reporting it to a local, state or federal government agency.

“For many New Yorkers, the lack of government-issued photo identification is a substantial barrier to employment and other necessities,” said John Liu, one of 21 City Council members who have signed on to sponsor the bill. “Not only will a city ID card enhance individual opportunities, but it will also help ensure equal access to municipal services.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who believes that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay if they pay back taxes and fines and follow the rules to apply for legal status, did not issue any official statement on the matter. He was quoted by the Queens Chronicle as saying that the city needs to give permanent status to the millions of illegal immigrants already living here and move on.

Meanwhile, the proposal also received support from some elected officials at the state level.

State Senator Ruben Diaz said the bill will “close the loophole that has done nothing but drive many New Yorkers underground out of fear of our city health and safety officials.”

Jose Peralta, a member of the State Assembly from Queens, told the Daily News that the card would improve the city’s security. “An ID card should dispel the concerns of all those who fear an underground society of undocumented immigrants that no one can identify,” Peralta said. “Now we will know who is who. In terms of security, it is a very positive step.”

… Or a Threat to Security?

But the New York bill has also attracted some opposition. City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. of Queens said the proposed ID violates federal law and sends the wrong message about the country’s immigrant policy. “This card is a clear attempt to circumvent our immigration laws,” Vallone said. “Just being in our country does not entitle you to being a citizen.”

“ It’s not the place of New York City to undermine the federal government’s albeit pathetic attempts to secure our borders,” Vallone continued. “With the threat of terrorism still over our heads, we certainly should not be doing anything to make it easier to come here illegally, board planes and otherwise blend into our society unnoticed.”

Zywicka, the Polish restaurant hostess, also has doubts about the bill. She said she would be hesitant to take up the city's offer of an identification card, even if the bill is passed.

" I am afraid to leave my information with any 'official' authority," she said, adding that she doesn't want the government to be able to track her down. "I would like to keep a distance. It is not necessary for me to get this ID. I have my Polish IDs in my wallet and should be able to be identified if any accident happens."

The bill was introduced on July 25 and is currently under review by the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operation.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  

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