Los Angeles is moving closer towards offering documents to the undocumented. Last week, a City Council committee unanimously approved a proposed ID card, to be available to all residents regardless of immigration status. The card can also function as a prepaid debit and library card. The full Council will vote on the measure in the coming weeks.
Los Angeles may soon join other cities, including San Francisco, Trenton, and New Haven, in issuing identification to the undocumented. These cities recognize the benefits of municipal ID cards. And if more cities follow Los Angeles’ lead, there may be a trend away from harsh anti-immigrant laws in favor of more compassionate, realistic measures.
To be clear, Los Angeles’ proposed ID card is no protection from deportation. It is not a substitute for a drivers’ license, nor can it be used as ID to get on a plane. It is simply proof of residency, showing that the bearer belongs to the community.
For security purposes, issuing identification to the undocumented makes sense. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that there are 916,000 undocumented immigrants in L.A. County. Certainly, it’s better for the government to know who and where they are, rather than let them exist in the shadows. Having an ID card helps people integrate into society as well. That’s why Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has been supportive of pro-immigrant measures. He says that when undocumented people are not afraid of the police, they are more likely to report crimes and serve as witnesses.
The optional debit function on Los Angeles’ proposed card is important because the city has the largest un-banked population in the country. According to the Corporation for Public Development, 12 percent of L.A. county residents have no access to financial services. Instead they rely on cash transactions, payday loans, and check-cashing services. Bringing these people into the financial sector will save them money and benefit local banks. The debit function on the cards will also make undocumented immigrants’ lives safer. Because they typically lack the ID necessary to open a bank account, undocumented immigrants are known to carry cash and are frequently targeted for robbery. The third feature of Los Angeles’ ID card will give bearers access to libraries, another positive form of civic engagement.
The city ID card will make life easier for the undocumented. Consider that they often cannot enter an office building or pick up a package without photo ID. Under Los Angeles’ plan, they can use their ID cards to pay bills or shop online, generating tax revenue for the city and state. There will be no costs to taxpayers, the city staff says. Participants will pay between $10 and $20 for their cards to a third-party vendor who will administer the program.
Still, the proposal has critics. Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform told CBS News that “It’s making it easier for people to violate federal immigration laws and easier for people to take jobs that should be going to unemployed Americans.” He’s wrong on both counts. The card does not allow anyone to stay in the country, and it cannot be used as a work permit.
Many opponents of Los Angeles’ proposal are the same people who supported state and local immigration initiatives in the past – as long as they made life harder for immigrants. States that cracked down on illegal immigration, like Arizona and Alabama, are actually doing the same thing as Los Angeles. These localities are filling the void of federal inaction on immigration with their own solutions. The difference is that Los Angeles’ ID card proposal is practical and humane.
Until the federal government takes up immigration reform, Los Angeles’ ID card is a step in the right direction. It provides benefits to the undocumented and to the city. It helps police fight crime. It is an example to the nation of an immigration measure that is safe, smart, and sensible.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.