Lawmakers weigh pros, cons of giving undocumented Newarkers municipal ID cards

By Naomi Nix | NJ Advance Media for
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on April 18, 2015

NEWARK — Several Newark city council members expressed cautious optimism Friday about Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's new proposal to create a municipal identification card for undocumented immigrants and other city residents.

Supporters of the program say it may make Newark more friendly to its immigrant population, but some council members expressed concerns about how the program would actually be carried out.

"It's an interesting concept," said East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, one of the sponsors of the legislation. "I know absolutely nothing in terms of process....there (are) a lot of questions."

Under the current iteration of the program, the identification cards could be used to access local libraries and museums, open a bank account and any other city services.

To obtain the card, residents would need to be at least 14 years old and show other forms of identification and residency which could include a utility bill, a visa card, a payment stub or a passport among other options.

The city, which hopes to implement the program by July 1, expects the recently incarcerated, homeless, seniors and undocumented immigrants to take advantage of the program.

South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James said he supported the council's decision on Wednesday to amend city laws to strike proof of citizenship from the requirements to obtain a "peddler's license" and instead allow Newarkers' to show a municipal identification card once the program is implemented.

"I just don't feel like we should discriminate against them because they are immigrants," he said. "We have a thriving immigrant population."

But several city council members said Friday while they support the general goal of a municipal ID program, they have a number of questions they want answered before they could consider supporting the legislation.

The questions include how it will be administered, paid for, obtained, and what services it entitles residents to.

"I support the idea, I'm just concerned about those questions," said Amador. Amador added that he wants to make sure the undocumented immigrant community doesn't think the ID card offers more benefits than it does.

Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins said she wants to better understand how the program compares to similar initiatives in other municipalities.

"I'm still doing my research on it," she said. "I'm not sure how it works as compared to the New York model."

West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum said he wants to make sure the city doesn't go too far in intervening in federal immigration policy.

"I don't think that should be done at the local level," he said.

The administration, several community stakeholders and staff members of various city council members met on Friday to discuss the legislation.

Ari Rosmarin, the NJ ACLU's policy director, said the meeting was a productive.

"I think we believe Newark could become one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the United States," he said. "How this municipal ID card program turns out is a real test for the city."

Rosmarin added that the ACLU wants to make sure there are no unintended consequences for the undocumented immigrant community.

Baraka's chief policy advisor, Tai Cooper, said the council should be able to get questions answered about the program in a previously-scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

"We will be adequately prepared to answer their questions on Tuesday," Cooper said. "We look forward to woking in collaboration with the council to make sure this is a smooth process."

Any challenges facing the program are worth overcoming said Father Karl Esker of St. James Church in the Ironbound. Esker said about half of his 1,000 member congregation are undocumented immigrants.

"I think it's a very valuable program," he said. "Let's not use the excuse of logistics not to do anything."

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