Selling New York on a Marginally Useful ID Card

The Committee on Immigration yesterday held its first hearing on Intro 253, the bill to establish a municipal ID card for city residents, and Speaker Mark-Viverito kicked things off by sternly announcing, “let it be known, and let it be clear, that this is a priority for this New York City Council, and we will have municipal IDs in New York City.”

Well, so much for the new, more transparent legislative process. Municipal ID cards were proposed by the mayor in February, then advanced by the speaker, and the bill has been brought rapidly to committee, with swift passage assured. What is one to make of the fact that, in close to 4 hours of testimony, not one person spoke in opposition to the bill? Is all of New York chorusing in favor of ID cards for non-citizens, or is it that the Council operates in a kind of quasi-Stalinist bubble where legislation through acclamation is the norm?

In any case, all the arguments for the implementation of a municipal ID card were trotted out, virtually all of which I covered last week in my City & State piece on the topic. A number of people made the absurd claim that people who don’t drive are practically excluded from obtaining state ID, where in fact the DMV offers non-driver ID for only $10. Others claimed that undocumented parents can’t enter their children’s school buildings, while the DOE insists that the school safety agent at the front desk will call the principal’s office in such cases.

The primary anxiety that most of the bill’s advocates, including the councilmembers themselves, voiced is that the municipal ID card will carry a “stigma” as something that only illegal immigrants will acquire. “People told me,” related CM Peter Koo bluntly, “’Why would I want to apply for a card that will let everyone know I am undocumented?’” Again and again, witnesses and elected officials alike puzzled over the problem of the municipal ID card as a “scarlet letter.”

The answer, of course, is to get everyone in New York City invested in obtaining an ID card that would be totally redundant, and largely useless to those who already have state-issued ID. The idea of offering discounts to city cultural institutions has been raised, though it seems dubious that a residency-based discount could be tied to possession of a special card. Another suggestion is to get businesses or restaurants to offer discounts upon presentation of the card. San Francisco has a municipal ID card, and a couple of dozen small businesses appear to give 10 or 15% discounts to bearers. But with such thin offerings the card runs the risk of becoming, as The New York Times warns, “a glorified library or supermarket-discount card.”

Immigration chair Carlos Menchaca is sanguine about the future of the municipal ID card, tweeting “We are looking forward to discussing this benefit with our institutions,” and, “This is about partnership. Something we will continue to explore.” But the experience of other cities that have introduced municipal ID cards is not entirely promising in regard to establishing the card as something that is held universally, and not only by the vulnerable, undocumented groups for whom it is manifestly intended. New Haven, the first city to issue municipal ID cards to all residents in 2007, distributed 10,000 cards over the first five years of the program. Given that New Haven has a population of 130,000 people, the ID card has rather limited penetration into the community. Additionally, as cards reach their expiration date, some residents of New Haven who bear the cards are not bothering to renew them, because of their perceived lack of utility: the cards are not accepted by many businesses for writing checks, for instance, or for other purposes.

Oakland, California, also offers its residents municipal ID cards, which have the capacity to function as debit cards. Since its introduction in 2013 it appears that approximately 10,000 people have registered for the card: in a city of 390,000 those numbers are not promising. The debit card feature, incidentally, imposes very high per-use fees, which have received negative reviews from local advocates.

As far as New York’s program goes, clearly the biggest challenge is getting a critical mass of people who see value in obtaining a supplemental identification card that they will carry around and actually use. Otherwise, the only people who will get the cards will be the people for whom they are intended, which will indeed impose a stigma on their possession, which will then lead people to stop getting or using the cards at all. Sure, it will be great to have a identification card that all the progressive members of the City Council and various advocates for the undocumented carry around as a show piece to demonstrate their commitment to the principle of residence over citizenship. But it will look very silly if the Council pushes this through without establishing an actual utility for these cards.

On the lighter side: It was most amusing to hear Mindy Tarlow, the Mayor’s Director of Operations, testifying on the complexities of rolling out the municipal ID cards, say, “we don’t want to get ahead of our skis.” One could almost hear the chamber collectively chew that expression over a few times. Shades of the Bloomberg years? Someone didn’t send Ms. Tarlow the memo on the Tale of Two Cities! "Must not use elitist metaphors, must not use elitist metaphors."