Offering Noncitizens a Local Identity

With immigration reform jettisoned from the national agenda, the mayor of New Haven, Conn., is resurrecting the debate in his own backyard. Rejecting the morally charged rhetoric that conservatives have used to cast opprobrium on "free-riding" aliens, Mayor John DeStefano is arguing that there are significant benefits associated with the inclusion of illegal immigrants in civil society.

Although these non-voting immigrants are politically peripheral, New Haven officials estimate that they comprise ten percent of the city's population. In an effort to acknowledge and validate the presence of this community, the board of aldermen has approved a municipal ID -- the first of its kind in any American city -- that is universally available to all New Haven residents, regardless of citizenship status. The ID will enable immigrants to fill prescriptions and access local banks, libraries, and public services. Most importantly, it will designate them as full-fledged participants in civil society.

The Elm City Residence Card, named for the trees that once dominated the regional landscape, is only the most recent in a series of public policies designed to incorporate marginalized groups into the New Haven community. Over the course of his 13 years in office, Mayor DeStefano has invented his own brand of small town realpolitik, which he has put into practice by consistently prioritizing the city's cohesion over the citizenship of its residents. 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 the state. The mayor's latest project, the Elm City ID, is an identification card that is being offered to all of the city's 125,000 residents, including an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 undocumented immigrants.

While the card is by no means interchangeable with a driver's license or a visa, it does validate an immigrant's membership in a community that, historically, has embraced outsiders. "The city has always been an immigrant community," DeStefano said. "Either your grandparents came here legally when the entry quotas were more generous, or you're still trying to get in under tighter regulations."

Until Congress succeeds in producing a plan for comprehensive reform, communities like New Haven will continue improvising their own solutions. Public officials in New York and other major cities are monitoring New Haven’s experiment and cautiously evaluating its suitability for their own communities. If the Elm City ID lives up to the lofty expectations of its architects, other cities may replicate the program.

City officials claim that recognizing the presence of a large number of non-citizens will benefit all New Haven residents, and they have won broad public support for the municipal ID by promoting its practical virtues instead of its ideological ones. 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."

Fear of authorities -- state or federal -- dominates New Haven's immigrant community. John Jairo Lugo, president of the local immigrant rights group Unidad Latina en Acción, 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. "Our community has always been a target of attacks," Lugo said, "but it is difficult to prove your innocence without an English language ID. If you have an encounter with the police department, they can detain you for days or months in jail until you can come up with valid identification," he said.

Liam Brennan, who helped draft the Elm City ID proposal as a Yale law student, said that immigrants are disproportionately victimized by 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 number to set up an account, documents that cannot be obtained by non-citizens. 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.

New Haven's police department has been working closely with pubic officials to encourage immigrants to cooperate in investigations. Last year, DeStefano put into writing a longstanding NHPD protocol with General Order 06-2, which prohibits police officers from inquiring about the citizenship status of a victim or witness to a crime.

But despite DeStefano's assurance that "no resident should be afraid to report crime," many immigrants are still convinced that talking to uniformed officials will get them extracted from their homes in the middle of the night -- which is exactly what happened on June 6th, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 32 individuals just two days after the board of aldermen voted 25-1 in favor of the Elm City ID. Of these 32 individuals, only four were detained on the basis of prior deportation orders. The remaining 28 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.

Immigration statutes require ICE agents to demonstrate reasonable suspicion prior to questioning or arresting individuals, whereas the testimonies of several detainees indicate a pattern of systematic racial profiling. Ángela, an Ecuadorian immigrant who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of deportation, said that ICE agents waited outside of her local grocery store to question customers who bought Spanish foods. Since the raid, she has been wearing a blonde wig to disguise her ethnicity.

City and state officials have also put forth allegations 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 said. In response to Wishnie's legal challenge -- and at the urging of state senators Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd-- the ICE has launched an internal affairs investigation to evaluate potential misconduct in New Haven. According to Wishnie, if the legal team is able to demonstrate that the operation was indeed retaliatory, any evidence gathered in New Haven was taken under illegal premises and consequently should be discarded.

After watching ICE agents handcuff their neighbors at random, many New Haven immigrants are increasingly wary of public officials, whether federal, state or municipal. Despite reassurance from community leaders like John Jairo Lugo that the ID will give them more security, not less, residents like Ángela are worried that any record of their presence in the city could result in deportation.

Lugo said his organization has been working to reassure immigrants that the city will not reveal their citizenship status to the ICE. But Ángela estimated that only one out of every five immigrants will apply for the ID. "Many people are afraid that this ID is a trap. What if there are cameras outside of city hall and they catch us writing the applications? 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 protestors. Critics of the program demonstrated outside city hall last Tuesday, when applications for the ID were first made available to residents. Bill Farrel, a roofer from a New Haven suburb, has been mobilizing opposition to the program as coordinator of Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform (SCCIR), 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. The so-called municipal ID is actually a pilot program designed to get similar legislation passed all across the country," he said. According to Wishnie and DeStefano, many city officials are indeed "watching" New Haven's experiment closely, but they didn’t give a precise figure. Lugo said that his organization was aware of similar initiatives on the horizon in Tucson, Miami, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore.

Although SCCIR has threatened legal action, it is unlikely that the organization would 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 advisors -- including Michael Wishnie -- to ensure that that "issuing an ID card is fully within the municipal authority of New Haven's government."

Although any legal action that Farrel threatens is likely to be thwarted, his prediction that New Haven's municipal ID will be adopted by other cities may very well pan out. New York City Council Member Hiram Monserrate introduced nearly identical legislation last Wednesday, citing the Elm City ID as the inspiration for his proposal. A New York-born former city policy officer, Monserrate made history in 2001 when he became the first the first Latino elected to public office in Queens, one of the city's most diverse boroughs. Monserrate's legislative director, Wayne Mahlike, said in a phone interview that the proposal was already backed by 15 out of 51 council members, in addition to over 40 community organizations.

DeStefano pointed 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 highlights the urgency of establishing a national immigration policy -- one that actually 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 12 million people," DeStefano said.

Until such a federal policy exists, the Elm City ID will continue to capture the attention of local leaders in other diverse, urban communities across the country. "The failure of Congress to adopt comprehensive reform only makes more important efforts at state and local levels to adapt municipal and state policies to the needs of all residents," Wishnie said, acknowledging that his team has been contacted by numerous public officials and grassroots organizations which are assessing the feasibility of implementing similar programs in their own communities.

But the municipal ID is only a short-term solution for a problem that demands "a federal fix," Wishnie said. He 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."