At a time when a rising number of states and cities are cracking down on illegal immigrants, New Haven, Conn., is reaching out to them with a unique perk: an ID card.
Besides serving as identification for bank services and if police ask for ID, the card can be used at municipal locations such as libraries, beaches, and parks – and as a debit card for city parking meters and at 15 downtown shops.
Cities – and critics – across the country are watching closely as New Haven prepares to hand out its first batch of cards July 24. The idea: integrate illegal immigrants into the community, protect them from crime that can happen because of a lack of documentation, and encourage them to be more willing to report crimes to police. Reaction to the first-of-a-kind program has been swift and sharp, illustrating the wide divide in US public opinion over the issue.
"We're the only city nationwide to have this program, so it's an opportunity we have to take to be a part of normal life in the community," says Maria, an illegal immigrant living here, who plans to pick up her card when it's available next week. She says illegal immigrants are targeted by muggers, who know they carry cash because they can't get a bank account without an ID.
But New Haven's move has also prompted protests.
"The city is selling out legal Americans," says Bill Farrel, one of a dozen members of the Yankee Patriot Association, which is a New England coalition opposing illegal immigration. The members demonstrated outside City Hall July 1 carrying American flags and wearing hard hats. "The illegals are taking jobs from guys that wear these kinds of hats."
Illegal immigrants account for 15,000 of New Haven's population of 120,000, according to Mr. Farrel, and he expects thousands more will come after the ID program gets under way. That's a theme that critics of the New Haven plan have taken up nationally.
For example, the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC has distributed fliers in 40 states mocking the proposal by urging illegal immigrants to go to New Haven. The fliers included a map with directions to the city.
"Let a few thousand more go there and use their [social] services until New Haven needs to ask for federal assistance," says William Gheen, president of the group, based in North Carolina. The city is committing a felony by abetting illegal immigrants and "any terrorists among them," he charges.
Politically, New Haven's plan goes against the grain. For example, 48 state-level bills regarding immigration and documentation were introduced this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. All 48 looked to restrict illegal immigrants. At the local-government level, 100 of 130 immigration ordinances introduced last year were called "anti-immigrant" in an online database of Fair Immigration Reform Movement, which advocates immigrants' rights and is based in Washington.
In New Haven, the main motivation for the ID cards was public safety, says Kica Matos, the city's community services administrator and a main initiator of the program. One reason the illegal immigrant community doesn't trust the police and doesn't come forward to report crimes is that police invariably ask to see ID.
The proposal sailed through the board of aldermen last month 25 to 1. The mayor was supportive. Yale Law School provided legal representation and advice. Local immigrant-rights groups lobbied for it,
"We're small enough that this issue is very much in people's consciousness," Ms. Matos says, "They live and work with undocumented immigrants.... Everyone is somewhat touched by them in their everyday life."
The card isn't just for illegal immigrants, either, Matos says. It was designed to be useful for all residents, she adds, so it wouldn't be regarded as a "scarlet U" for "undocumented."
The city has fielded calls from governments and immigrant-rights groups in New York, San Francisco, and Washington State, she says. "There's a lot of buzz around the card, but they're waiting for us to get our program rolling."