NEW HAVEN, Conn. – City officials have approved a plan to offer illegal immigrants identification cards that would let them open bank accounts and use other services that may be unavailable without driver's licenses or state-issued IDs.
Supporters say the program, approved by the Board of Aldermen and believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, will help safeguard the city's estimated 15,000 illegal immigrants. If they can open bank accounts, immigrants will be less likely to carry large amounts of cash, a practice that makes them easy targets for robbers.
Monday's approval stands in contrast to new laws or proposals in more than 90 cities or counties around the nation prohibiting landlords from leasing to illegal immigrants, penalizing businesses that employ them or training police to enforce immigration laws.
New Haven, a city of about 125,000 and home to Yale University, already offers federal tax help to immigrants and prohibits police from asking about their immigration status.
"It was really a vote that reflected our values as a community here in New Haven, values of hard work, values of acceptance, and values that we get tough things done when we work together," Mayor John DeStefano said Tuesday.
The aldermen agreed to accept $250,000 from a private foundation to pay for the cards that will serve as identification within city limits. The cards will be available to all residents, and can also be used to get library cards or pay for downtown parking meters.
The cards should be available in July, at a cost of $5 for children and $10 for adults.
Approval of the new IDs was good news for immigrants like Miguel Cienfuendes, whose brother was stabbed to death in a robbery last fall. Cienfuendes, who moved to New Haven from Mexico, lives in fear of being robbed.
"I don't walk the streets any more," Cienfuendes said recently, speaking through an interpreter. "Where we live it's scary. We don't know when they are going to come after us thinking we have money."
Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for stricter immigration enforcement, said the cards were largely symbolic. Most illegal immigrants who want bank accounts or need city services have probably already found ways to get them, he said.
"It seems like the main thing that's going on here is really just a statement by the city that it wishes to subvert U.S. immigration law with a largely meaningless gesture for illegals," he said.
Yale law professor Michael Wishnie said the ID cards will help illegal immigrants participate more in civic life. They do not entitle immigrants to special treatment, he said.
"They're simply saying if you're already eligible for something, like a bank account or a library card, and this will help you get the thing you're already eligible for, then we'll facilitate it," he said.
Wishnie said he does not believe the federal government will try to use the new cards to target or track New Haven's illegal immigrants.
"There is no guarantee, but there are several reasons why I'm not concerned," he said.
Even if the government did request records from the New Haven ID program, they would probably not be particularly useful, he said. The IDs will not distinguish between citizens and illegal immigrants, and only about a third of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. are likely to show up in any type of government database.