Undocumented Immigrant Debit Cards: Oakland Introduces Landmark New Program

Oakland Opens Bank Accounts For Undocumented Immigrants

SAN FRANCISCO -- The city of Oakland began issuing combination photo identification and debit cards earlier this month to any city resident who applies for one, even those who also happen to be undocumented immigrants.

"The ID is a wonderful symbol of Oakland, saying we're all Oakland residents," Jesse Newark, executive director of the advocacy group Centro Legal, told Oakland North. "Whatever the federal stance on immigration, or people's legal status, they can still feel recognized as part of the community where they live."

But the program has drawn the ire of both anti-immigration and privacy advocates, who have respectively argued that the cards amount to a local amnesty policy and that they could open up the cardholders to fraud or identity theft.

According to Dr. Paula Cruz-Takash of UCLA's North Americam Integration and Development Center, which helped design the program, the cards have already proved wildly popular. Oakland issues between 200 and 250 a day to both its immigrant population and other marginalized communities.

"The program isn't just for undocumented folks," she explained to The Huffington Post. "The aim is to provide identification and banking services to lots of groups who need it."

Including the debit element addresses one of the major issues facing marginalized communities: a lack of access to essential banking services.

Since many undocumented immigrants are unable to open bank accounts, they are often forced to carry large amounts of cash, making them susceptible crime or, as Cruz-Takash called it, "walking ATMs." Additionally, without access to traditional banks, they are forced to rely on check cashing and payday loan services that can charge exorbitant rates to those who can least afford it.

Instead of going through local brick-and-mortar bank locations, the debit program will function by partnering with area merchants that agree to take deposits and make withdrawals.

"The idea is to convert stores that immigrants go to in the community into financial service centers," Raul Hinojosa, the CEO of SF Global, which manages the program, told Oakland North. "Our goal is to open up a hundred locations in Oakland."

Cruz-Takash noted that the cards also allow their holders to access a range of services, particularly in the health care field, that require photo IDs.

Oakland is the first city to begin issuing combination identification and debit cards, and it's already serving as a model for other cities around the county. Last year, Los Angeles became the biggest city in the country to approve a similar system, and other municipalities, from nearby Richmond, Calif., to Dayton, Ohio, are looking to follow suit.

Five years after New Haven, Conn., became the first city in the nation to issue municipal identification cards (without the banking element), officials have credited the system with a significant drop in crime. Advocates claim undocumented immigrants with ID cards feel more empowered to report illegal activity to authorities without the immediate fear of deportation.

"The New Haven Resident Card has been very helpful from a law enforcement perspective," said New Haven Assistant Chief of Police Luiz Casanova in a statement. "Overall, the card has improved interactions between police and undocumented residents, and has played an important role in building relationships and respect."

Nevertheless, some critics oppose issuing these types of cards to undocumented immigrants because of the message it sends. "It's one more way of having a de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants," Mark Krikorian, director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, told NPR. "This kind of measure, along with, say, giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, helps integrate illegal immigrants into our institutions in a way that is simply inappropriate."

Privacy advocates have also expressed concerns, claiming that putting personal information on a debit card puts those whose cards are lost or stolen in danger of fraud and identity theft.

"The city of Oakland is creating a debit card that violates the privacy of the users and that's outrageous," Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. "You have a situation where the most financially vulnerable people, perhaps they're living payday to payday, are exposed to fraudulent activity on their debit card."

As a fraud prevention measure, users can receive a text message each time their card is used.

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