Philadelphia, where the percentage of immigrants doubled between 2000 and 2013, is a city divided. There are those for whom access to health services, law enforcement, schools and government buildings is as easy as proffering a photo ID. And there are those who have no such identification—and therefore no ability to tap into city resources (theoretically) available for all residents. That means they can’t visit their children’s classroom, or enter a city courthouse, or prove their identity in a traffic stop. They are, in civic terms, invisible bodies in the middle of the bustling city.
That’s why in 2016 Philly is expected to join several cities in issuing municipal IDs to those without photo identification—a move that has fueled controversy across the country about how best to balance the needs of new residents with the fears of coddling undocumented immigrants.
Mayor-elect Jim Kenney—who included city ID cards in his campaign platform—has supported the idea since 2013, when Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez first proposed a program here. (At the time, the bill stalled into obscurity.) She and newly-elected Councilwoman Helen Gym have already announced plans to propose it again early in the new year.
New York’s municipal ID program created incentives to entice all New Yorkers to enroll: Discounts for prescription drugs, free memberships to 33 (and now 40) cultural institutions around the city, and library membership to all three public library systems in New York.
Quiñones-Sánchez’s original proposal was based on San Francisco’s 2009 municipal ID policy, among the first in the country. But to be truly successful, Philly should look to New York City, which in 2015 launched the most effective municipal ID program in the country.
Since New Haven debuted its “Elm City Resident Card program” in 2007, several cities have experimented with municipal ID cards to address growing immigrant populations, though the cards also benefit anyone with no photo ID, including recently released ex-convicts, the elderly and homeless people. The cards provide the identification necessary to enter any public buildings, such as schools; open a bank account; access health and social services; and apply for apartment leases, among other things.
Additionally, proponents of municipal IDs say it keeps a city safer by allowing immigrants to interact with the police without disclosing their illegal status, making them more willing and comfortable to work with law enforcement. In New Haven, the introduction of the Elm City Card was tied to an increase in crime reporting and a decrease in overall crime.
But municipal IDs around the country have been hampered by two things: Lack of participation, and stigma. People of means already have forms of ID and see no need for new ones; people who are undocumented fear a city ID card will announce their status. This contributes to an average of just 1 percent of the population signing up for cards in most cities. In other words, the initiative fails if it only appeals to undocumented immigrants.
So New York’s municipal ID program, unveiled by Mayor Bill de Blasio in January of 2015, created incentives to entice all New Yorkers to enroll: Discounts for prescription drugs, free memberships to 33 (and now 40) cultural institutions around the city, and library membership to all three public library systems in New York.
These incentives seem to be working. With the one-year anniversary of the program approaching, more than 670,000 people have enrolled in the so-called IDNYC program—nearly 8 percent of the city’s population.
Critics have targeted IDNYC from opposing positions. Conservatives are concerned that it’s too accommodating of immigrants, representing a dangerous step towards sweeping immigration reform. “Without requiring fingerprints, or other proper security checks, this will create a homeland security nightmare for law enforcement and the vulnerable civilian population of New York City and beyond,” former state Senator Greg Ball said in 2014.
Meanwhile, the New York Civil Liberties Union has refused to back IDNYC out of concern that participants in the program aren’t sufficiently protected because the New York police and the FBI will be able to access records submitted as part of municipal ID applications without having to show probable cause. In response, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs promised to “defend against any sort of attempts to access these documents that are a fishing expedition of sorts.”
Already, Philadelphia is among the most welcoming of cities for immigrants, documented or not. In 2009, Mayor Nutter issued an executive order explicitly allowing anyone to access city services regardless of immigration status. Four years later, he made Philly a safe haven, refusing to comply with federal rules requiring police alert immigration officials about any arrests of undocumented residents. He, too, faced a similar backlash from critics worried about welcoming illegal—and potentially dangerous—immigrants. And this month, he backed off his original order, agreeing to submit information on arrests of people on terrorism watch lists or who were convicted of first degree felonies. (Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney says he will reinstitute Nutter’s original order.)
But a safe haven is meaningless for the many immigrants with no ID who still are uncomfortable with government offices and employees. That’s why immigrant advocates support a city ID card program with benefits similar to what exists in New York.
Critics have targeted IDNYC from opposing positions. Conservatives are concerned that it’s too accommodating of immigrants, representing a dangerous step towards sweeping immigration reform. Meanwhile, the New York Civil Liberties Union has refused to back IDNYC out of concern that participants in the program aren’t sufficiently protected.
In 2013, Quiñones-Sánchez’s proposal called for a city ID card that would cost residents $15. This time, she says she’s hoping it will cost even less—as cheap as the new mayor and the city’s budget will allow. One of the top priorities is ensuring the cooperation of banks in the city so card-holders can open bank accounts. And there may be hope for an even more popular ancillary benefit: Although there’s still no set date for when we can expect SEPTA Key to launch, the technology it will employ should be embeddable in any type of payment card. Quiñones-Sánchez hopes Philly’s municipal IDs will also double as SEPTA passes—something sure to make it appealing to a wide swath of Philadelphians.
“The municipal ID will help all Philadelphians access their government and its crucial services,” says Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez, “as well as provide our law enforcement officials with a non-discriminatory tool help ensure public safety.”