By Charisma L. Miller, Esq
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Every week in Bushwick, a group of immigrant New Yorkers — many of whom are undocumented — gather for a forum on immigration issues. The group, led by Make the Road New York (MRNY), has provided information on current and pending immigrant legislation and services — legal and social — available to the expanding Brooklyn immigrant population. A recent hot button topic being discussed at a number of these meetings is the roll-out of the municipal identification card, also known as the NYC ID.
"There are about 50 people who attend our weekly meetings in the Bushwick office," said Daniel Coates, a lead community organizer with MRNY. A majority of the attendees, Coates noted, are excited about the identification card that provides a promise of inclusion for many Brooklynites who, because of their undocumented status, have been unable obtain any form of government identification and who have hidden their identity as an undocumented New Yorker for fear of reprisal by local, state or federal agencies.
Cause of Celebration
The NYC ID, first proposed in 2007 and again proposed in April 2014, will provide all residents of New York City a government issued identification card that can be used in lieu of an official driver's license or non-driver's ID where photo identification is required. Simple transactions, such as purchasing items with a credit card, obtaining a prescription or opening a bank account, require a government ID and for many Brooklynites, the access to the foundation documents needed to obtain government identification are limited.
"Unfortunately, many of our city's most vulnerable residents — including the elderly, undocumented immigrants, the homeless and transgender people — face major obstacles to obtaining traditional forms of identification," noted Donna Liberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
Signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in July, the NYC ID will be available to anyone who can prove residency in New York City and show some proof of identity with the understood goal of allowing undocumented persons the ability to participate freely in the city's economy and social framework.
"We cannot accept a city where some of our residents are forced to live fearfully in the shadows," de Blasio said during the bill's signing ceremony in front of the Brooklyn Public Library. "In New York, our diversity is our strength and this initiative would help a broader set of people engage with our city," noted Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez of the Brooklyn Congressional delegation as she thanked the city for a "Municipal ID program, which will help some of our newest residents feel truly at home in joining our communities."
The program is not scheduled to begin until January 2015 and many of the details are still being ironed out. It is not clear exactly what documents would be sufficient to show proof of identity. Also, banks and other private institutions have not publicly stated whether or not they will accept the NYC ID as a valid form of identification. That is not stopping members of MRNY from educating their constituents in advance of the winter roll-out.
"We have developed simple education materials that we have started distributing across the organization as to who can get an NYC ID card and the basic documents (i.e., foreign passport or birth certificate) that can be provided as proof of identity. We are starting early so that our members can begin gathering their paperwork," Coates said.
Allowing time for persons to gather the foundation materials can be viewed as a benefit given that many of the proof of identity documents, such as a foreign birth certificate, may be difficult to locate if hidden away for safekeeping. The summer announcement of a winter roll-out has, however, opened the door for fraud schemes and scams.
"People are eager about the NYC ID," Coates advised, "but we are telling people that they cannot get their IDs just yet. The news has come out but it does not go into effect until January. We are advising people to wait since this is an opportunity for others to scam vulnerable persons."
With an estimated 500,000 immigrants living in New York illegally, it is evident that this population is the primary focus of the NYC ID legislation.
"[T]hese half million New Yorkers are building the city alongside all of us every single day, and we will do better by them," de Blasio said of the legislation in April. While the undocumented immigrant population will be overwhelmingly served by the NYC ID program, it is not the only group set to benefit.
The young, homeless and transgender populations of New York City also "struggle to access other means of identification," Lieberman stated. "Two other big groups are young people and the LGBT community," noted Coates. "Many of our youth members — as young as 14 years — start high school and begin moving around the city more," Coates explained. "As they move through the city, many, especially the youth of color, are often stopped and questioned by police officers and school identification cards are not accepted forms of ID for the cops."
The NYCLU, in its April testimony to City Council expressing support for the ID measure, also pointed to easing police interactions as a reason to pass NYC ID legislation. "While there is no legal obligation to carry or present identification, a lack thereof can prolong a police encounter because the police might use lengthy alternative methods to verify that the person does not have an outstanding arrest warrant," said NYCLU advocacy director Johanna Miller.
As for members of the transgender community, the NYC ID will allow gender status to be self-attested on a government issued identification card for the first time.
"Besides not being a single community, we do have undocumented persons that will benefit from the NYC ID," Erin Drinkwater, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. "The added benefit is that you can self-identify your gender marker and this is important to the transgender community."
Oftentimes members of the transgender community experience discrimination or are denied access to public spaces if, for example, one's birth certificate or driver's license lists male while the gender presented to the public is female. And a change to gender identification on official documents is not an easy task. Currently, persons wishing to change their gender identification on their New York City birth certificate may not do so unless they have undergone painful and oftentimes expensive gender reassignment surgery.
This is not the case for New York state birth certificates, however. Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed legislation this June easing the restriction for New York state but "the city has fallen behind," Drinkwater noted. Gender identification and the ability to select one's gender is a huge concern for transgender Brooklynites and a supported aspect of the NYC ID.
"It's important to have an ID card with a gender marker that matches your [gender] presentation," said Drinkwater, since without it, the advocate noted, persons are barred from meaningful participation in civic life.
"Generally, the concept that you have to furnish an ID to enter public spaces, including government buildings, prevents many members of the community from participating in aspects of their public life," Drinkwater stated.
A related vulnerable group identified is members of the LBGT community who are young runaways who "did not think to pack their birth certificate with them" as they left volatile home situations, Drinkwater added.
Pause for Concern
While communities are enthusiastic about the possibilities the NYC ID promises to bring, others are concerned about the dangers associated with a massive amount of data collected when persons sign up for the ID card.
"The success of this program hinges on the city's ability to keep people's private information private — and not entered into an electronic database where it could become the target of identity theft or shared with other city agencies," Miller noted in April. In its spring testimony to City Council, the NYCLU appeared assured and applauded the "Council for its legislation that prohibits retention of sensitive documents in conjunction with [the NYC ID] program."
As indicated in the June 26 Committee report on the NYC ID legislation, the initial bill, supported by the NYCLU, prohibited the city from retaining originals or copies of records of an applicant's proof of identity and residency.
The final bill, however, altered the retention provision and now requires the city to retain the foundation documents for two years. Miller and the NYCLU found this changed measure unacceptable and pulled its support of the ID program.
"Unfortunately, the bill that is before the mayor ... also provides for the city to copy and store people's most sensitive documentation, like pay stubs, social security numbers and even their children's educational records," Miller said in the NYCLU statement to rescind support. "In this bill, the city has not done enough to protect those documents from being used by law enforcement. The NYPD, FBI, DHS and others can request these documents without having to show probable cause. And if they are requested, the city has no obligation to even notify the person so they may be able to defend their own privacy."
The city countered that in order for the bill to pass and the NYPD to accept the ID, the bill had to allow for some concessions. "We're going to keep tabs on every single access point from the NYPD so we can observe if there any abuses," said co-sponsor of the bill Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn).
Other groups have expressed worry as to the document retention, a concern felt most deeply by undocumented immigrants.
"There are concerns and we share those concerns," Coates said. "We do not want people being turned over to authorities, but we have yet to see the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency target city ID lists for deportation."
The city of New Haven, Connecticut, may not agree. In 2007, two days after introducing a citywide ID program, DHS and ICE agents raided homes in that city without warrants and some individuals were seized and subjected to deportation hearings.
In February 2012, the U.S. government settled with 11 individuals who alleged they were illegally raided in retaliation of the city ID program. The government did not admit liability or fault and called the settlement necessary “in order to avoid the additional time and expense of further litigation.”
The events of New Haven notwithstanding, Coates' worry is assuaged by the "assurances the city has been able to obtain from DHS [...] even if we are unable to put it in the legislation."
Further calming fears is the provision that in order for a law enforcement agency to obtain copies of the
documents used in the NYC ID program, a judicial warrant or subpoena must be issued.
"On the legal end," Coates noted, "there are clear and high level bars that we were able to put into the law. Another agency will have to get a judicial subpoena, for example."
What is unclear is the level of cause or reason sufficient for a valid subpoena or warrant for NYC ID documents. The NYCLU statement notes that no probable cause is needed for access and the hearing notes and legislative text is silent on that issue.
"There is a global concern as to where and how the information is being held," noted Drinkwater, but "this is where broader education is needed in advance of the roll-out." Not dismissing valid concerns, Coates noted that for much of the undocumented immigrant community, "we understand that everything is a risk.The fundamental goal is to pass federal immigration reform that formally and legally integrates these persons in society. but in the interim, there are risks to the NYC ID, but the benefits that we are getting out of this card is unlocking the city."
"The NYC ID is something for all New Yorkers," said Drinkwater. "Standing side by side pulling everyone out of the shadows allows for a prosperous civic life and ensures that all of our communities are engaged."
August 22, 2014 - 10:35am
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