San Francisco Issues Municipal IDs to Illegal Immigrants

"You want controversy? Here it comes. Ready? Thursday in San Francisco, we will be one of the first cities in America with municipal ID cards."

As San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom finished the sentence, the approximately 400 Bay Area residents in attendance fell quiet at this town hall meeting set up by Newsom's exploratory campaign for California's gubernatorial race next year. Giving identification cards to all residents -- legal and illegal -- was a heated topic during presidential debates during the 2008 election.

It was the last question of the night -- how Gov. Newsom would approach immigration -- that rattled the room, after more than one hour of discussions about renewable energy, universal health care and funding public education, the three most important issues to Newsom's platform.

Speaking at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, the mayor said it was time to "deal with reality" and raised deep concerns that illegal immigrants are afraid to report crimes, unable to receive medical treatment, and afraid to send their children to school, in case their lack of documentation were discovered. Newsom said that in most cases, these people pay taxes.

"There's no question it'll be controversial because of demagoguing from the right," Newsom said. "But we're not going to walk away from it because of politics." Naming efforts that have already succeeded in expanding access to services for city residents, the mayor cited San Francisco's universal health care program, called "Healthy San Francisco," and "Bank on San Francisco," the city's campaign to open accounts for the large number of mostly minority residents who may be undocumented and thus do not use banks.

Eric Jaye, Newsom's campaign director, said, "Immigration is a federal issue. San Francisco is not in charge of border issues. If Gavin Newsom is elected [governor], he won't be in control of the border either." Jaye cited a Yale University study in which undocumented workers in New Haven had trouble accessing health services. Mayor Newsom stressed that national immigration reform is needed, but that giving residents access to services precedes politics of the moment.

Nancy Lukas, a Bay Area resident in attendance, had a positive impression of the mayor after the town hall meeting, but remained ambivalent about the municipal identification card policy. Referring to illegal immigrants she said, "We need them to fill jobs in farming, construction... but at the same time they are taking away jobs from those who are unemployed." At the very least, Lukas said she hopes all felons who are here illegally should be deported, and that general deportation should begin with those who are least embedded in their lifestyles in the U.S. -- those who have most recently arrived.

Regarding Newsom, "I like the fact that he's controversial and he's not afraid," Lukas said. "The whole country is going to go the way California goes eventually anyway. They're just going to throw a hissy fit first."

Newsom certainly has been at the helm of many plans that seem too progressive for those across the country, as well as some at home in California. In 2004 when Newsom had only been on the job for a few months, he ordered the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Now he's making bold claims to make the San Francisco Bay Area the "electric vehicle capital of the world" by creating 250,000 charging stations and continuing the most progressive solar program in the U.S.

Newsom emphasized that the municipal identification card program would not be in conflict with national immigration reform. But like the effort to allow gay marriage, the public may take a while to warm up to the new system.