Why Cities Around the Country Should Adopt Municipal ID Programs

The IDs have proven a game-changer for immigrants in New York City, New Haven and elsewhere.

Emily Tucker

Led by immigrants, grassroots organizations have been successful in passing municipal ID programs in major cities, improving the lives of immigrant communities and underserved populations. 

Though immigrant communities have been a powerful force in advocating for cities to adopt municipal ID card programs, it is not only immigrant communities that stand to benefit.

Why do ID cards for immigrants matter? Because without the right form of identification, a person may not be able to open a bank account or cash a check, see a doctor at a hospital, register their child for school, apply for public benefits, file a complaint with the police department, borrow a book from a library, vote in an election, or even collect a package from the post office. Municipal ID removes all of these barriers with a single stroke. 

The Center for Popular Democracy has published a guide that will help cities across the country set up municipal ID programs, Building Identity: A Toolkit for Designing and Implementing a Successful Municipal ID Program. By enabling local governments to extend dignity to their immigrant populations, we hope the guide will lead to a proliferation of municipal ID programs throughout the U.S.

The fight for municipal ID programs began eight years ago in New Haven, Connecticut. Attacks on the local immigrant community and the failure by the state legislature to expand access to drivers’ licenses led the city to create the first municipal ID card program in the nation. 

Slowly, other cities began to follow New Haven’s lead, recognizing the incredible benefits of municipal IDnot just for residents who have trouble accessing other forms of government-issued ID, but for the good of economic and political life in general. 

The slow adoption of municipal ID programs turned into a rapid acceleration in 2015, driven in large part by New York City’s launch of a municipal ID. IDNYC, approved by the New York City Council last year and rolled out at the beginning of this year by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is now the largest municipal ID program in the country with over 350,000 enrollees. 

Though immigrant communities have been a powerful force in advocating for cities to adopt municipal ID card programs, it is not only immigrant communities that stand to benefit. 

Municipal ID is such a powerful policy tool precisely because of its potential to adapt to a wide range of on-the-ground realities. New programs in a dozen different cities, and campaigns underway in more than a dozen more, are designed to fill gaps in access to city services for youth, the homeless, the elderly, those returning from a period of incarceration, and transgender individuals. 

Cities are also realizing that for their local ID programs to be successful, they must appeal to everyone, including residents who already have other forms of ID. By attaching benefits to local cultural institutions and businesses to their cards, cities are attracting a wide range of participants, which boosts the legitimacy of the card in the community. 

As we continue to fight for reform at the federal level, creating municipal IDs is one thing that local governments can do to include and empower their immigrant constituencies. 

Programs like these send a message of inclusion and welcome not only within the borders of the cities where they exist, but also outwards towards the rest of the country and to Washington DC, where millions of lives hang in the balance of the stalled debate. 

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Emily Tucker is a senior staff attorney for immigrants’ rights at Center for Popular Democracy.
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