Municipal IDs Empower Immigrants, Residents Without Bank Accounts, in Oakland

Pearl Wong
Law for the People Intern

In mid-March, Oakland joined less than a handful of cities to issue municipal identification cards to its residents. The municipal ID card shows the cardholder’s photograph, name, address, and other personal information, excluding gender. Uniquely, it can also be used as a debit card. The cards will enable residents to access services that were difficult or impossible to access before. While the initiative has been touted as a measure to provide documentation and greater security to undocumented immigrants, a municipal identification card affects more than just the undocumented immigrant population. All residents who lack acceptable forms of government-issued identification can benefit from a photo ID and its prepaid debit card function.

Undocumented immigrants carry many documents of their identity, but oftentimes these documents are not recognized or accepted by authorities in the U.S. Carrying a municipal ID card will help immigrants prove their identity and residency in Oakland. The initiative also hopes to increase crime reporting among immigrants which is markedly low compared to reporting rates in the general population.

“The NLG Immigration Committee supports Oakland’s efforts to provide municipal ID cards for its residents. If the program is similar to San Francisco’s, it will provide photo ID to any resident, regardless of immigration status,” said Leah Price, NLGSF Immigration Committee Co-Chair. “We’ve seen wide use of these ID cards in San Francisco, from residents being able to show photo ID to law enforcement, to assisting undocumented students in their applications for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). This is a great plan, and it will help protect Oakland’s undocumented population.”

Other communities supporting Oakland’s new initiative include health service providers, the formerly incarcerated, senior citizens, low-income, unbanked communities, and the transgender community.

All city agencies, services, and departments, including the police department, are required by City Ordinance to accept the ID as an official form of identification. Cardholders can also access health care services which often require a photo ID. The identification card’s dual functionality provides extra security because a cardholder’s information is protected under the Right to Financial Privacy Act. Applicants and cardholders’ personal information cannot be obtained through a Freedom of Information records request. The most obvious limitation is that municipal IDs are not recognized by the federal government, so certain activities, like boarding commercial flights, would still require an ID acceptable to federal agencies.

For people who are unbanked, the debit card function can provide them with financial security and stability. Oftentimes, people are deterred from banking due to low incomes to maintain a bank account’s minimum balance, lack of infrastructure and banking locations, lack of financial literacy, blacklists by banks due to prior financial records, and general mistrust in banks. As a result, they carry large amounts of cash on their person, or at home, and become targets for theft and violence. According to Dr. Paule Cruz-Takash of UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center, who is one of the organizers for the municipal ID initiative, “Unbanked individuals are often seen as walking ATMs.”

The card’s fees have drawn critics, but they remain lower than many other options, such as check-cashing facilities, and the debit function is optional.

While the Oakland municipal identification card faces some opposition from anti-immigrant organizations, the card’s dual functionality has already spurred other cities into action, such as Los Angeles. In October 2012, the Los Angeles City Council approved a proposal to issue city cards that also offer a prepaid debit function. Privacy advocates have also voiced concerns about the personal information displayed on the card. However, time will tell if these concerns require further action from the City to protect cardholders’ privacy. At the moment, the City has received over 1500 applications from its Civic Center and Fruitvale offices since opening in February. Another office is due to open in East Oakland as well.