Municipal ID Cards: Social Inclusion and Economic Benefits

New York may be the next city to offer municipal identification cards to all residents, regardless of immigration status. First conceived as a public safety initiative, some cities have made identification cards available to bring undocumented people out of the shadows and empower them to interact with police. Armed with a city-issued identification card, people may feel more comfortable seeking protection from law enforcement officials, reporting crimes and assisting in police investigations. Public safety is an important goal, but city-issued identification cards can also have a powerful social and economic impact. They can help build community and instill a sense of belonging, particularly among marginalized individuals. Cities can also stimulate local commerce by connecting cardholders to businesses and banks.

Since most states grant cities broad police and spending powers to adopt public health, welfare and safety measures, issuing identification cards is generally a lawful exercise of municipal authority that does not violate state or federal law. Several cities are already issuing municipal identification cards. San Francisco and New Haven, for example, issue cards to residents who can provide proof of identity and residency. Prospective cardholders are not asked about their immigration status in the application process. These immigrant-friendly cards can also appeal to the LGBT community by providing transgender individuals with a simple and accessible way of documenting a name change. By empowering people across communities, particularly in the absence of immigration reform and full LGBT equality, the cards can help promote civic engagement and inclusion.

City-issued cards also serve an important economic function because they can be used as primary or secondary forms of identification to open checking or savings accounts. Research from the Pew Hispanic Center shows that undocumented immigrants tend to shy away from mainstream banks. With an estimated 11 million undocumented people in the Unites States, this population represents a large, untapped market for financial services providers.

Bringing banking and financial services to cardholders can generate a significant influx of capital for local and community banks across the country. Cardholders would be able to deposit their earnings and savings in banks instead of squirreling away money at home. Since community banks tend to channel their loans and investments directly into Main Street, this would steer money directly to neighborhoods hit hardest by the recession.

Undocumented people also stand to benefit from institutionalized and long-term ties with local and community banks. These relationships can help protect immigrants from expensive check-cashing establishments and predatory payday lenders. Banks would also have the opportunity to support a culture of saving and help generate wealth in immigrant communities. After all, money kept under a mattress does not accrue interest and is vulnerable to theft.

The identification cards can also be loaded with incentives to stimulate local spending. For example, in New Haven, where the city recruited local businesses as community partners, the identification card can be used to receive discounts in certain stores. This feature encourages all residents, not just undocumented or transgender people, to apply for an identification card. As we recover from the recession, providing discounts for cardholders can expand economic participation and stimulate local commerce.

Municipal identification programs provide a safe and controlled mechanism that can be implemented without the state or federal government to help integrate more people into local communities. In the absence of federal recognition and protection for undocumented immigrants and marginalized LGBT individuals, city-issued cards are an effective local solution to a national crisis. We all stand to benefit from bringing people out of the shadows, improving access to law enforcement and supporting local businesses.

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal defended the municipal identification card of New Haven, Connecticut, against an attempt to dismantle the program.