Immigration Issues: City on a Hill

With immigration reform jettisoned from the national agenda, the mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, is resurrecting the debate in his own backyard. Rejecting the morally charged rhetoric that conservatives have used to cast opprobrium on free-riding aliens, John DeStefano is arguing that the inclusion of illegal immigrants in civil society is vital to public services that benefit the whole city.

Although non-voting immigrants are politically peripheral, New Haven officials estimate that they make up 10 percent of the city's population. In an effort to validate this presence, the city's Board of Aldermen has approved a municipal ID card -- the first of its kind in any American city -- that is universally available to New Haven's 125,000 residents, including its estimated 10,000 to 12,000 undocumented immigrants. The ID enables any holder, immigrant or otherwise, to access local banks, libraries, and public services. It also entitles them to prescription drugs at the HAVEN Free Clinic, which previously required uninsured patients to present a Social Security number. On July 24, city officials began distributing the application -- in Spanish and English -- at City Hall; by Aug. 14, 2,671 cards had been issued.

In discussing the myriad functions of the municipal ID -- which also doubles as a debit card in local restaurants and stores -- public officials are careful to differentiate between rights and public services; the card only entitles residents to the latter. While it cannot shield immigrants from arrest or deportation, it is clear that the municipal ID has designated New Haven's undocumented immigrants as full-fledged participants in civil society. Its adoption also has raised the city's profile as a test ground for the progressive policies that incubate at think tanks but rarely make it onto the agenda of major municipal governments like New Haven's. Public officials in New York and other major cities are monitoring New Haven's experiment and evaluating its suitability for their own communities. If the ID lives up to the lofty expectations of its architects, other cities may replicate the program, at least until Congress produces a plan for comprehensive reform.

The Elm City Resident Card, named for the trees that once dominated the regional landscape, is the most recent in a series of public policies designed to incorporate marginalized groups into the New Haven community. Over the course of his 14 years in office, DeStefano has earned a reputation for reconstituting public offices to reflect New Haven's diverse demographic makeup. Half of the city's police officers are African American or Latino, and the force includes a higher percentage of female officers than any other department in Connecticut.

New Haven officials have won broad public support for the municipal ID by promoting the policy's practical virtues while deemphasizing its ideological baggage. According to Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield, the Elm City ID "is above all a pragmatic policy -- and one that benefits the whole city." He continued, "From a public health and public safety standpoint, it doesn't make sense to have 10,000 members of a community afraid to get medical help or report crime, just because they're undocumented."

Optimists believe the card will help on many fronts. John Jairo Lugo, president of the local immigrant-rights group Unidad Latina en Accion, said that lack of documentation deters immigrants from reporting crimes because they frequently become objects of suspicion if they are unable to prove their identities. "If you have an encounter with the police department," Lugo said, "they can detain you for days or months in jail until you can come up with valid identification."

Additionally, Liam Brennan, who helped draft the Elm City ID proposal as a Yale law student, said that immigrants are disproportionately the victims of theft and home invasion, since they are frequently paid in cash but have nowhere to deposit their earnings. Local banks usually require a driver's license or Social Security card -- documents noncitizens cannot obtain -- to set up an account. But Brennan said that many banks have agreed to accept the new municipal ID. With possession of a bank account and a valid ID, immigrants will be simultaneously "more likely to report crime, and less likely to experience it themselves," he said.

But it's unclear just how much the card will help illegal residents' long-standing vulnerability when dealing with authorities. On June 6, just two days after the Board of Aldermen voted 25-1 in favor of the Elm City ID, New Haven's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 32 residents. Of these 32 individuals, only five had prior deportation orders. Twenty-eight of the 32 have been released on bond with the help of Yale Law School professor Michael Wishnie, who has challenged the motives behind the ICE raid and the manner in which it was conducted. City and state officials have alleged that the ICE conducted the raid in retaliation for the city's tolerant immigration policy. Wishnie, with a team of attorneys and Yale law students, is marshalling evidence to "show that the city's approval of the municipal ID was the catalyst for the ICE raids," he explained.

After watching ICE agents handcuff their neighbors, seemingly at random, many New Haven immigrants are more wary than ever of public officials. Despite reassurance from community leaders like Lugo that the ID will give them more security, not less, illegal residents are worried that any record of their presence in the city could result in deportation. "Many people are afraid that this ID is a trap," said Angela, an Ecuadoran immigrant who, fearing more raids, has been wearing a blonde wig to hide her ethnic identity. She guesses only one in five immigrants will apply. "I'm going to wait three weeks to make sure it is safe, and then I will get my card."

Immigrants who decide to apply also face intimidation by protesters. In July, critics of the program demonstrated outside City Hall as applications for the ID were handed out. Deputy Mayor Kica Matos described the volume and rancor of hate mail as "horrendous." "The phone calls have really been quite scary. But this is why it's called a struggle. There's a reason why it's so hard to push forward a civil-rights agenda," Matos said.

Bill Farrel, a roofer from a New Haven suburb, has been mobilizing opposition to the program as a coordinator for Southern Connecticut Immigration Reform (SCtIR), claiming that the city is extending amnesty to illegal aliens at the expense of working-class citizens. Farrel fears that New Haven's municipal experiment could spawn a network of similar initiatives nationwide. "This issue is so much bigger than New Haven," he said. "As we speak, there are over 30 American cities awaiting the outcome of this program, in order to implement their own versions of it." (Whether or not the number is 30, certainly cities are watching: Wishnie said his team has been contacted about the program by numerous public officials and grassroots organizations, and Lugo said that his organization was aware of similar initiatives on the horizon in Chicago, Tucson, Miami, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon. In New York City, Council Member Hiram Monserrat introduced nearly identical legislation on July 25, the day after New Haven began processing applications for the ID.)

SCtIR has threatened legal action, but it is unlikely that the organization will be able to demonstrate standing since it is based in a suburb of New Haven. Brennan, the former Yale law student who helped draft the ID card proposal, said that unless a charge is filed by an entity within the city, "it would be difficult to prove that any harm has been done." And according to Mayor DeStefano, "The program has broad support in New Haven. Most of the people who oppose it are not members of the community." Regardless of opposition to the program, DeStefano said he has consulted with legal advisers to ensure that "issuing an ID card is fully within the municipal authority of New Haven's government."

DeStefano points out that public fascination with New Haven's program has been amplified by "the absence of a coherent federal policy." "By failing to act, the government has created a policy of de facto tolerance for a population that isn't going to do anything but grow -- in this city and in the United States as a whole." The fact that city officials like DeStefano are resorting to do-it-yourself reform only confirms the urgency of establishing a national immigration policy -- one that acknowledges the presence of 12 million people who don't plan on leaving anytime soon. "The fact is that our economy could not sustain the loss of millions of workers, and it's unlikely that there is a real mechanism to deport [them]," DeStefano said.

Wishnie believes that local debate in cities like New Haven could eventually generate enough pressure to bring federal lawmakers back to the table. "The friction that we're seeing here in Connecticut is what will drive people back to their senators to demand comprehensive reform," Wishnie said. "Until that happens, communities will continue to govern themselves."