As President Donald Trump promises a crackdown on immigrants living here illegally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pressing ahead with a municipal ID plan, a concept that’s drawn fire from both sides of the issue.
Some immigrant allies worry federal agents could use applicants’ personal information from such a program to deport undocumented immigrants, while critics say the IDs constitute a national security risk.
Experiences in two other big cities could prove instructive to Chicago. A lawsuit challenging New York’s ID program shows the potential pitfalls as cities try to balance personal safety and security, while San Francisco provides a path forward that immigrant advocates could embrace but likely wouldn’t appease those who say card applicants should face tougher screenings.
Emanuel has backed the identification program as a step to give Chicagoans who don’t have driver’s licenses or Social Security numbers a way to prove who they are so they can pay bills, make police reports or gain access to public buildings.
Offering such an ID also allows Emanuel to plant a high-profile flag in his campaign to position himself in opposition to Trump as a defender of immigrants’ rights and Chicago as a safe haven for those living here without legal permission.
The mayor’s handpicked city clerk, Anna Valencia, is heading up the ID initiative. Valencia’s office insists applicants’ information will be secure and those who apply will be properly vetted, though Valencia has offered no specifics on how the city will achieve those goals or when the program will launch. She declined to be interviewed.
New York case
The New York case over the fate of the private information of applicants there is leading pro-immigrant mayors in Democratic-leaning cities to consider ways the process could have unintended consequences.
In December, two Republican state lawmakers who represent Staten Island sued in state court to block the destruction of the supporting documentation presented by applicants for the IDNYC card on the grounds that doing so would threaten national security and violate the state’s open records law.
The lawyer for the pair, Jeffrey Alfano, said it makes no sense to get rid of the information from the roughly 1 million holders of the New York cards, which allow them to get city services and act much like driver’s licenses or other official forms of identification. “To think these things can be used for nefarious means, it’s not such a stretch,” he said of the IDs.
In addition, Alfano said there are serious questions about whether New York is doing enough to properly train city employees to know if applicants are providing honest personal information to get their cards. Applicants can use expired foreign passports or foreign birth certificates to help prove their identities in New York, which he said makes it extremely tough to know whether they are being truthful.
“You have to put the trust that the application is filled out properly, that the applicant is being honest,” Alfano said.
New York’s ID program, which started in 2015, called for supporting information presented by applicants to be kept for two years and then destroyed. After Trump’s election, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to protect cardholders’ personal information, including deleting the supporting documents to stop federal immigration agents from trying to use them to track down people in the country illegally. But while the case plays out, the judge in the lawsuit has blocked de Blasio from getting rid of the documents already in city files.
The New York ordinance also allowed officials at the end of 2016 to decide whether to keep holding onto any such information going forward, and the city human resources administrator announced in December that supporting documents from new applicants would not be retained. De Blasio’s office did not respond to questions about the ID program and the lawsuit.
The New York case prompted Philadelphia last month to put its proposed municipal ID program on hold amid concerns that immigration agents could use such data to try to track down undocumented immigrants who are cardholders.
“The situation in New York reinforces the importance of making sure appropriate measures are taken to protect the data collection of sensitive information related to our residents,” Miriam Enriquez, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said in an email.
Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said his group has been working with the Emanuel administration to help avoid the “fundamental flaw” New York made in crafting its ordinance.
“Our allies warned” New York officials not to hold onto so much information from applicants, Tsao said.
Emanuel spokeswoman Jennifer Martinez said the administration “will take every precaution it can to protect each applicant’s data, and will oppose any effort to force the city to disclose that information.”
“This will be done by drawing upon the best practices of other cities, which includes capturing minimal information from applicants,” Martinez said in an email.
The city hopes to make the Chicago ID useful to a wide array of residents by allowing people who have them to get discounts, possibly at museums, sports stadiums and pharmacies, according to the clerk’s office. That could help broaden the pool of cardholders and make it harder for immigration agents to hone in on those living here illegally.
Asked whether the city will urge banks to accept the cards to allow people to open accounts and perform other banking business, clerk spokeswoman Kate LeFurgy said the city is “working on several partnerships, including financial institutions.” And asked whether the discounts might include lower CTA fares on weekends, LeFurgy responded, “We are open to suggestions and are exploring all potential partnerships.”
Tsao said keeping even names and addresses of a huge group of cardholders could still put immigrants at risk by allowing agents to focus on neighborhoods like Little Village that have large immigrant populations.
“In a city like Chicago, where many people have surnames that one could, fairly or not, interpret as being of foreign origin, there is a concern that someone who was not well-intentioned who gets hold of the list could identify, say, the Garcia family living on 27th Street from that list and then possibly cause problems for them,” Tsao said.
“We have strongly recommended to the city that they keep information gathering to a minimum and that they not keep supporting documents,” he said.
LeFurgy said the city is attempting to “strike the right balance of making it secure and accessible.”
“We are working very closely with immigrant organizations, community groups and advocates to address the concerns of the people they serve,” LeFurgy added. “We are exploring ways to make the IDs accessible in neighborhoods through partnerships with community groups.”
San Francisco plan
San Francisco’s ID program may provide a template Chicago immigrant groups could support.
Since 2009, the California city has issued cards to about 30,000 people, according to San Francisco County Clerk Catherine Stefani, whose office administers the program. To get one, residents have to schedule in-person appointments at City Hall and prove their identities by showing a U.S. or foreign passport, a government-issued visa, a foreign or U.S. driver’s license or a combination of other documents.
To establish residency in San Francisco, applicants can show any of 13 different documents, including utility bills, property tax statements, employment pay stubs, proof of a child enrolled in a San Francisco school, a recent jury summons or written verification from a homeless shelter, according to the clerk’s office website.
To protect those who apply for the San Francisco IDs, Stefani said officials opted to keep only records of applicants’ names and dates of birth. Applicants also can choose to provide emergency contact phone numbers, which are then kept in government records. A laser cutter inscribes the applicant’s address onto the card after the address is verified, but keeps no record of the address, Stefani said.
Federal officials have made no efforts to obtain any records from San Francisco about the ID program, Stefani said. She said she’s troubled by the situation in New York, but added she is “absolutely” certain any information immigration agents did get their hands on in San Francisco would not be helpful in trying to track down undocumented immigrants who obtained the cards.
Stefani said she has spoken to Chicago officials in recent months about the San Francisco program.
Chicago next steps
There’s $1 million in the Chicago budget to pay for getting the ID program started, and the clerk’s office is looking at how much new hardware and computer technology will need to be purchased and whether the office will need to hire more people to administer it or bring in an outside firm to do so.
The clerk’s office is considering submitting an ordinance to the City Council to create the ID program, though not all cities that have an ID program got aldermanic approval before launching.
With the controversy swirling around the IDs elsewhere and city officials here still working to ensure they have buy-in from immigrants’ rights groups, homeless advocates and others to try to get as many applicants as possible, the clerk’s office is not committing to a timeline.
“The Municipal ID program will impact all Chicagoans, and as the link between community and government, it is our office’s role to ensure that the Municipal ID program has a secure card, does not put anyone’s information at risk, and is rolled out in a thoughtful manner with input from the very communities the card is meant to benefit,” LeFurgy said.