ID cards for unauthorized immigrants taking hold in N.J. and U.S.

By Tim Darragh | NJ Advance Media for
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on October 13, 2015

Residents gather with city officials Saturday at a Saturday kickoff ceremony for the Newark municipal ID program.


While illegal immigration has been the issue Donald Trump has used to rise to the top of Republican presidential polls, a program designed to benefit unauthorized immigrants — municipal identity cards — is continuing to gain acceptance in New Jersey and beyond.

Roselle is poised to become the latest community to adopt the cards, and in Perth Amboy, Highland Park and other communities in New Jersey, they are in some stage of consideration. Municipal ID cards are already available in Newark, Asbury Park, Trenton, Freehold and Mercer and Morris counties, among other places. 

The cards, which provide an individual's basic identity points  — name, date of birth, photograph, signature line and more — are critical to individuals who, for a variety of reasons, cannot get a driver's license, passport or other government issued ID.

Supporters say ID cards could benefit any residents in communities that issue cards, but would help primarily those on the fringes of society, including the homeless, runaways and recently released convicts. 

Helping unauthorized immigrants gain a foothold in the community is "extremely important" since they can't get a driver's license, said Sara Cullinane of Make The Road New Jersey, an immigration and civil rights organization. 

Without an ID, individuals often cannot open a bank account, access government services or, in some cases, receive commercial discounts for which they are eligible.

The city of New Haven, Conn., became the first community in the country to start a municipal ID program in 2007 after officials there recognized that unauthorized immigrants, unable to keep their money in a bank, were targeted as "walking ATMs" by muggers, said Lisa Wilson, registrar of Vital Statistics.

New Haven has issued about 13,000 cards since the program started, she said.

"With our card, the people who get it are more than likely the people who are just trying to start a good life and get into the system and start paying into the system," she said.

German Vergara, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, told NJ Advance Media that he has been unsuccessful in enrolling into an English as a second language class because he didn't have an ID card. 

"There are many situations where you need identification," said Vergara, who has lived in Roselle for 13 years. "It is a problem when we only have something from our home country." 

Cards won't help individuals outside issuing communities, advocates note, so card-holders will not be able to use them to prove identity to buy alcohol, pass through security at an airport or buy a gun, since those require state or federal identification cards. 

The card, however, is helpful when police ask individuals to present identification, said Maria Juega, executive director of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Trenton. 

Indeed, police in some communities strongly support ID cards. In Princeton and surrounding communities, Juega said, police "were key in enabling the program... Their endorsement in turn made it much easier to gain acceptance across the community."

It also helped that the program is self-financing, she said, and involves no tax funding.

Some communities, including Newark and New Haven, do use public funds to operate the program to give it more authority and to protect against fraud.

"The cost is low and I think the benefits of having a community where an entire sector of the population isn't barred from participating in civic life is a terrific idea," said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director for the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Not everyone agrees. When New York City was considering its ID card program, state Sen. Terrence Murphy told The Yorktown Daily Voice that issuing cards to unauthorized immigrants was "incentivizing lawbreaking." 

It also was the "perfect feeder program" for future terrorists to get established in a community, he said.

But Rosmarin said it's not up to local communities to fix Washington's immigration policies. "Roselle," he said, "can only do what's right for Roselle."

New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, which opposes programs that help unauthorized immigrants, did not respond to NJ Advance Media for comment.

But in communities with large immigrant populations, support is considerable. Six months into its municipal ID card program, New York City had issued 400,000 cards, officials said this summer.

Juega said her organization has issued more than 8,000 cards since 2010, although about a quarter of them are renewals, she said. 

Nationwide, municipal ID card programs are long-established in immigrant-heavy cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. But it is sprouting in places not immediately considered immigrant havens. 

In Nashville, Tenn., Mayor Megan Barry, elected in September, publicly supported a citywide ID card — as did each of the six other mayoral candidates, according to the Tennessean. 

Johnson County, Iowa started its ID card program this summer. Miami-Dade County, Charlotte, N.C. and Detroit also are considering it. 

While Roselle residents wait for a final vote on its ID card program later this month, Perth Amboy will begin researching the issue. Mayor Wilda Diaz will hold a press conference Tuesday to announce a task force that could lay the groundwork for a municipal ID card by early 2016. 

And the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, pastor of The Reformed Church of Highland Park, said officials and community members are giving thought to municipal ID cards. 

However, Kaper-Dale said he'd much rather see a more robust effort — bills in the state to give unauthorized immigrants the right to a driver's license — become law. 

Having a driver's license opens more of society to individuals as opposed to ID cards that have limited effect only in the community that issues them, he said.

"One of them is sort of symbolically nice," he said, "and the other one is radically transformative."

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