If a group of local community activists has its way, every Oakland resident, including the undocumented, would be eligible for a city-issued ID card as soon as next year.
Across the bay in San Francisco, a similar program adopted by the county last year is now facing major roadblocks. But the Oakland City ID Card Coalition — a small group of immigration attorneys, homeless advocates, Green Party members, and college students — is pressing on. They say the local ID cards would encourage more undocumented immigrants to report crimes to police, and also would allow them and members of other marginalized groups to access libraries and open bank accounts. This, they add, would benefit the whole community by reducing crime and encouraging investment in the local economy.
"The most important thing for all of us is to have some form of identification," said Jesse Newmark, an attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, a legal services organization that supports the coalition's work.
Oakland is one of a handful of California cities and counties — including Richmond, Los Angeles, and Marin County — where the idea is now being contemplated, advocates say. Members of the Oakland coalition hope to bring the proposal before the city council by year's end.
So far, only two communities in the country — San Francisco and New Haven, Connecticut — have adopted municipal ID programs. Both communities have come under heavy fire from anti-immigration groups, which say such programs aid and abet illegal immigration.
While New Haven's program is up and running, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last month sent a letter to the city administrator ordering him to postpone implementation of the program in the wake of an unrelated controversy surrounding the city's immigrant sanctuary policies. The city's program also is the target of a lawsuit by the Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, which contends that it has failed to account for the program's environmental impacts, and that it is an unlawful use of taxpayer funds.
Advocates in Oakland are hoping the problems across the bay won't impact support for their proposal. They say that the ID cards would help many of those who dwell on society's margins, including undocumented immigrants, the homeless, transgender people, and elderly African Americans from the South who were born at home and never issued birth certificates.
Maria Dominguez, who helped start the coalition, wrote her Mills College senior honors thesis on the idea of a municipal ID for Oakland. Dominguez said she grew up hearing about undocumented friends and family members who didn't have their papeles, or papers in Spanish. Many were afraid to report crimes to police, or became "walking ATMs," easy targets for robbery because they lacked bank accounts. A municipal ID could help the problem, she said.
"If you live in Oakland, you should have the right to be called an Oakland citizen," she said. She estimates that the ID card program could cost between $50,000 and a few hundred thousand dollars to initiate.
Paul Rose, spokesman for Mayor Ron Dellums, said the mayor was not yet familiar with the proposal but would be open to exploring the possibility of an ID card.
Oakland Police Department spokesman Jeff Thomason said his department had one preliminary conversation with the coalition. To support the program, he said, the department would want to make sure there was a method of verifying each applicant's identity, and that all information would be kept in a secure database.
Miguel Robles, coordinator of the Alianza Latinoamericana por los Derechos de los Inmigrantes, which has been working with various municipal ID coalitions across the state, said anyone who applied for a city ID card would be required to have some other former of photo ID as well as proof of address.
Robles says an ID card would not only ease victims' fears about reporting crimes but also make it easier for police to identify criminals.
Last week, at a lunchtime gathering held for day laborers at Centro Legal de la Raza, reaction to the ID card proposal was both hopeful and hesitant. Men in faded baseball caps and paint-spattered jeans said they longed for the day-to-day benefits an ID card provides. But some worried that, should they apply for such a card, the government would deport them.
A man who identified himself as Jose Luis said he'd been in the country and undocumented for 17 years. He carries in his backpack any money he earns working as a day laborer. He's never had a bank account, or a library card. "Yes, this would help a lot," he said.
His friend Victor wasn't so sure. "An ID is a gamble," he said. "You can win. You can lose."
In order to avoid singling out undocumented immigrants, coalition members are hoping to provide incentives for city workers, school district employees, and students of all ages to apply for the ID. Such incentives could include using the card for public transit, for access to museums or libraries, or as a student ID card.
Wilson Riles, a former city councilman and longtime community activist, believes an ID card could help provide a unifying identity for a city often divided by race, class, language, and neighborhood. "I think the municipal ID is of the utmost importance for actually moving this city forward," he said.
Marc-Tizoc Gonzalez, an attorney with Alameda County's Homeless Action Center, said the card could prove helpful to homeless people. Oftentimes, he said, they have a difficult time proving their identities, which, in turn, keeps them from getting benefits. "It's almost impossible to understand what it's like not to have an official form of ID," he said. "It's so fundamental to us."
Members of the coalition say they have approached the Oakland Unified School district and the Peralta Community College district, and are reaching out to members of the city council. They hope the proposal will go before committee soon, then be heard by the full council in late 2008 or early 2009.
Mike Wishnie, a professor of law at Yale University, said the New Haven ID program drew the wrath of anti-immigrant groups. They held rallies, sent death threats and tried, so far unsuccessfully, to make a public information request for the names of everyone who had applied for the cards. But thousands of people applied anyway.
Jorge Estrada understands why all those people lined up. He said he'd do the same if an ID card were created in Fremont, where he lives. Estrada, who runs a housekeeping business with his wife, said he's often afraid to call the police because he's nervous such a call would lead to his deportation. Both Estrada and his wife are undocumented. (The Express agreed to use his maternal last name because he fears deportation.)
Estrada said he has had friends land in jail for hours because they didn't have identification cards to give police. While he doesn't have illusions that an ID card would solve all of his problems, he believes it would help. "People are going to feel more comfortable."
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