The nation's second-largest city has approved ID cards aimed at helping the otherwise undocumented.

How do you document the undocumented?

In the absence of federal immigration reform, that is the question many cities have been striving to answer.

Last week, after a 12-1 City Council vote, Los Angeles joined a growing number of U.S. cities that have decided to issue identification cards to undocumented immigrants who offer proof of residence. In theory, the cards will allow L.A.'s enormous undocumented population -- estimated to be more than 700,000 people -- to pay bills, open bank accounts, get bus passes, acquire store membership, apply for health insurance, pick up their kids from school, or access any other city services that require identification.

Several American cities, such as New Haven, San Francisco, and Oakland are all at different stages of operating ID distribution programs. Yet in the five years since the first municipal IDs debuted in New Haven, there's been little consensus -- and little dialogue -- between them. No two card systems are the same. And no system has yet provided a replicable model for reformers.

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Hence the importance of the project in L.A., whose immigrant population is far greater than any city that's tried it before. The success of an ID program in L.A. would not only establish a prototype for a municipal ID system, it would validate the whole concept. With plenty of  cities -- and potentially the federal government -- on the hunt for sensible immigration policy, Los Angeles has the chance to perfect the model.

Cities with municipal ID programs have faced two central obstacles.

The first is fear, motivated in part by the presence of vindictive opposition. In the summer of 2007, when New Haven began its experiment with immigration reform, anti-immigrant groups were outraged. Americans for Legal Immigration posted fliers in over 40 states with directions to the Elm City.

"We figure if they get another 5,000 or 10,000 illegal aliens in New Haven," said A.L.I. boss William Gheen on The O'Reilly Factor, "they'll be closing hospitals, begging for school bonds, and begging for federal aid to fight the gangs in their street like much of the disaster areas being created across America." On the first day the cards became available, opposition groups protested by filming those waiting in line to register for identification.

A more serious challenge came soon after the first IDs were issued, when program opponents filed a FOIL request for a list of card-holders' names and addresses. Such a request, if granted, would have been a catastrophe for New Haven's efforts -- and for its reputation as a "sanctuary city."

Fear has closely followed efforts to provide identification to the undocumented. Mexican immigrants in the U.S., for example, are entitled to a matricula consular, an ID issued by the consulate, but because the card is considered a badge of unauthorized status, many undocumented immigrants would rather not have one at all.

New Haven's refusal to release personal information was upheld in court, but the narrow brush with disclosure worried other cities that wanted to attempt an ID program.

In Trenton, the cards were non-governmental, and hence safe from a public records request. (That approach brings its own problems, exacerbating questions of legitimacy that dog even city-sponsored cards.)

In San Francisco, the need for privacy seemed incompatible with the county clerk's job of keeping records. To satisfy the privacy requirement while protecting its clients from a potential FOIL request, the office invested in a high-tech laser engraving machine that cost more than half a million dollars [PDF]. 

Practically, cities have struggled to make the cards useful. A 2008 study found that New Haven's Elm City Resident Card, in the hands of Latinos, had only a 68 percent acceptance rate -- slightly lower than that of a fake card the researchers created. The Elm City card, the researchers concluded, was of "negligable utility as a form of documentation" [PDF].

The city remains optimistic. Liz Benton, a spokesperson for New Haven City Hall, touted the card's achievements in making basic government offerings like the dump, parks and transit passes accessible for undocumented immigrants. Eleven thousand New Haveners have applied for the card since 2007. It has, the city says, improved relations between immigrants and the police.

Still, other cities have encountered legitimacy problems. In Mercer County, New Jersey, the cards had been confiscated by municipal departments that believed they were fake. In San Francisco, the Police Department "was not supportive of accepting the card as a form of identification" [PDF].

"It was just an identity document," Mayor John DeStefano told the New Haven Independent on the occasion of the Elm City Card's five-year anniversary this summer. "That’s all it was."

Los Angeles won't solve these problems overnight. But by taking a page out of Oakland's book, the city may be able to assure its cardholders their information will remain private.

Oakland's solution welds privacy to utility: its cards are also debit cards, managed by a partnership between SF Global and University National Bank of St. Paul, Minnesota. The Banking Privacy Act protects the personal data, making it inaccessible to anti-immigrant groups.

Privacy fears, says Torie Osborn, L.A.'s Deputy Mayor for Community Development, were a sticking point that had previously prevented the Los Angeles program from getting off the ground. "If there was any chance that your data wasn’t going to be private," she says, "there’s no chance that people are going to apply."

In Los Angeles, proponents hope a debit card system, which is nearly underway in Oakland, will help achieve the great unrealized ambition of municipal identity cards: to bank the unbanked. In San Francisco, one study found that banks have been reluctant to accept the ID [PDF]. In New Haven, only about 50 accounts have been opened at SMART Community Bank, whose grant funded the card program.

Univision estimates there are 450,000 earners without bank accounts in L.A. County -- 12 percent of the population -- who lose thousands of dollars each year in fees. The city is issuing a request for proposals in December, and expects to create a public-private partnership along the lines of Oakland's model.

The sheer scale of the program in Los Angeles will, to some extent, ensure it has a higher profile than some of the smaller operations. With the rest of the country watching, L.A. businesses should be watching as well.

For longtime advocates of municipal card programs like Maria Juega, the executive director of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Mercer County, New Jersey, the growth of the model is bittersweet, because it means there is still no progress on federal immigration reform.

"I was hoping to be out of business by now," she says.

Top image: lapetitelumiere/

More from the Atlantic Cities:

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

A Simple Way to Reduce Urban Poverty: Pave Streets

These Are the Cities that Can Show Us How to Create Jobs

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