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With L.A.'s Proposed ID Cards, Immigrants Can Play a Larger Role in the City's Economy

More efforts are being made to embrace undocumented immigrants and the economic potential they have.


The city of Los Angeles is considering a plan to turn its library system's cards into stand-in identification for the city's undocumented immigrants. The idea is to provide a quasi-legal identifier that will make it possible for immigrants to open things like bank accounts via vendors partnering with the city. L.A. City Councilmember Richard Alarcon, who proposed [PDF] the so-called City Services Cards, says they will help the city's immigrants become more financially secure.

Other cities have implemented similar versions of this concept, including Oakland, California, Richmond, Virginia and New Haven, Connecticut. Though seen as controversial for what some argue is an encouragement of illegal immigration, proponents argue that these cards open banking opportunities that help reduce the risks and costs of not having a formal checking or savings account.

Perhaps more importantly, it's emblematic of the growing recognition among city officials that retaining immigrants can be good for the local economy. As Steve Case wrote recently in The Atlantic, rules preventing immigrants from playing a role in the economy ignore their potential.

For a country trying to recover from the deepest recession in generations, we're undermining our economic competitiveness when we make it harder, not easier, for talented immigrants to stay here and contribute to our economy. This has to change.

Though he was specifically writing about high-skilled immigrants, the principle is relevant: immigrants eager and willing to play a role in the economic wellbeing of the country (or of a city) should be welcomed.

Another take on this theme is the recent suggestion by Brandon Fuller of the NYU Urbanization Project that a system of city-based visas could be set up to help stabilize city populations and spur success among immigrants. As The Atlantic Cities' Richard Florida explains, cities could act as the sponsors of immigrants in order to bring new people and entrepreneurs into their populations as a form of mutual wealth generation. Again, the idea is to help reduce the barriers that may be holding back potential actors in the urban economy.

For L.A., the City Services Card is an idea that's been a long time coming. The city is home to an estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants, and since 1979 has had a semi-official agnostic stance when it comes to the illegality of illegal immigrants. That year the Los Angeles Police Department enacted Special Order 40 [PDF], which prohibits officers from initiating any sort of police action with the objective of finding out whether a person is legal or not – itself representative of the way the city looks upon its large immigrant population.

The proposed card system in L.A. simply follows along this path, but with the added benefit of building the ability for wealth to accumulate among the immigrant population of the city. By harboring and nurturing these immigrants, the city could be helping to grow its own economy and improve its competitiveness in the urban economy.

Photo credit: Kansas Sebastian/Flickr

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.