Elm City ID Card Turns 5

Thomas MacMillan PhotoDoomsday never arrived. Nor did hordes of immigrants suddenly open new bank accounts with their first-in-the-nation municipal ID cards.

When New Haven rolled out the immigrant-friendly card, it sparked backlash from anti-immigrant groups and retaliatory raids by federal immigration agents. Five years and 10,000 cards later, doomsday predictions have long fizzled out, leaving a stronger community along with a new challenge—keeping the card useful and relevant, rather than largely symbolic for most of its bearers.

On Tuesday, July 24, 2007, the city officially launched its Elm City Resident Card program, creating national headlines. New Haven became the first city in the country to issue its own municipal IDs as part of an effort to protect and welcome immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, into the community.

This week, the city celebrates the fifth anniversary of the Resident Card with several events: a 2:15 p.m. press conference on Tuesday, a photo exhibit at City Hall, a panel discussion on Thursday at the public library, and special discounts for cardholders at certain restaurants.

It’s an opportunity to “recommit ourselves to continuing and expanding this important program,” said Mayor John DeStefano, who helped create the card in 2007.

Each Elm City Resident Card features the bearer’s photo, name, address, date of birth, and signature. The card serves as a means of identification for those who might otherwise have none. It helps people to open local bank accounts and can be used to access parks and public libraries.

As New Haven looks to improve its five-year-old Resident Card, other cities have followed suit. San Francisco started an ID card program in 2009. Several other cities in California and New Jersey already have or are developing resident cards.

In the five years since the first card was issued, some 10,000 New Haveners have gotten a resident ID.

It has enabled immigrants like Celia Solano show, as she put it, “that we live here.”

By some quantifiable measures, the Elm City Resident Card may not appear to have had a significant impact on immigrants’ lives. Only about 500 people have converted their Elm City IDs into library cards, according to Kathy DeNigris, deputy library head. At START Bank, the community lender that most embraces the ID, only about 60 people have used it to open an account in the last year and a half, according to START Vice President Lynn Smith.

The card’s less tangible but possibly more meaningful effects become apparent in conversations about the card with officials and activists and neighbors. The Elm City Resident Card has helped foster a sense of belonging, a sense of being a real New Havener regardless of one’s immigration status.

Grand Avenue baker Yolanda Guzman Elias, for instance, feels like a recognized “good person” in New Haven, and less “afraid.”

That sense of community has made the city stronger in many ways, including economically, said Mayor DeStefano. He pointed to the thriving business corridor at the heart of immigrant-rich Fair Haven.

And the battle to create the card helped galvanize New Haven to later push back against federal immigration crackdowns like the “Secure Communities” program and, soon, to work to integrate immigrant-friendly federal efforts like President Obama’s new program for young college-bound immigrants, DeStefano said.

The sense of belonging has also improved relations between cops and immigrants. It has helped prevent immigrants from being victimized because of a fear of reporting crimes due to a lack of ID, cops said. (The police helped foster that trust with an order preventing officers from asking people about their immigrant status unless it’s relevant to a matter under investigation.)

Still, some people interviewed for this article said more can be done to publicize the card and make it easier for people to get and use, and that banks should accept it more readily. The city is looking into the possibility of adding a debit-card feature to the ID, to fulfill one of the original goals for the program.

An End To “Walking ATMs”

“In retrospect, we were certainly naive,” said Kica Matos (pictured in file photo), who helped shepherd the Resident Card into existence, first from the outside as an activist and then as a top city official. “It wasn’t meant as a political statement.”

Regardless of intention, the card became a flashpoint in a national debate about immigration, a call to arms on both sides of the debate.

“The Elm City ID card initiative was really a community-based effort that came from the immigrant community,” she said. At the time, in 2004, Matos was the head of Junta, a Latino-focused community organization based in Fair Haven. The original plan, hatched by immigrants and allies, was to change the laws to make it easier for immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. When that proved too difficult, Plan B emerged: Create a municipal ID program.

The idea “came directly from the victimization of immigrants in Fair Haven,” Matos said. Muggers targeted immigrants who were less likely to have bank accounts and more likely to carry large amounts of cash on them. Immigrants were known as “walking ATMs.”

Junta and Unidad Latina En Accion, an immigrants’ advocacy group, presented the municipal ID idea to the mayor along with several other initiatives. While the others went forward—the city translated common forms into Spanish, for example—“the ID card sat on the shelf for a number of years,” Matos said.

Meanwhile, “the problem of victimization continued,” culminating in the robbery of an immigrant that ended in death. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Matos said. “He’d just finished cashing his check and was assaulted. The robber tried to get his money. He resisted and was stabbed to death.” (Read about that here.)

Shortly after that, DeStefano asked Matos to be his community service administrator. She made it a condition of the hire that she be able to create an ID card.

At the time, much like now, “there was a very contentious, heated debate taking place at the national level” about immigration. All of a sudden, the ID card became a national issue, Matos recalled. “The national spotlight turned on New Haven ... because we were moving forward with a very progressive, very innovative initiative. We were wrapping our arms around immigrants in our community, including people without status.”

The national attention “triggered local resistance,” Matos said. But not from within the city. Most of the opposition that emerged came from the suburbs. “They were concerned that all of a sudden the suburbs will be flooded with these, you know, brown people.”

It was a campaign of “very aggressive advocacy that bordered on violence,” Matos said. “The city was flooded with hostile emails.”

The attacks revealed the “hypocrisy of the issue,” because New Haven was not the first city to have some kind of ID card, said Mayor DeStefano said. Other towns have long had “beach cards,” which give residents access to the town beach. The difference was that New Haven was explicitly creating an immigrant-friendly identity document, he said. That’s what drew the hate.

Despite resistance, the ID card program went forward. Mayor DeStefano said he remembers well the day the cards were first issued to the general public, July 24, 2007. Anti-immigrant groups were lined up outside City Hall videotaping people as they entered to get their cards. People were standing up and publicly claiming their rightful place as residents of New Haven “It really was an awesome moment, to see people’s courage.”

Weaving The Fabric

“It wasn’t the end of the world,” Mayor DeStefano (pictured) said in an interview in his office, referring to the predictions of anti-immigrant groups. “And the American nation did not collapse.”

“People thought rafts were going to start showing up from Cuba on our Connecticut shores,” said police spokesman Officer Dave Hartman. “That was the ridiculous hype.”

In the end, both the fears and the hopes attached to the card were probably overblown, DeStefano said. If the card didn’t destroy America, it also didn’t solve all the problems of immigration.

“It was just an identity document,” DeStefano said. “That’s all it was.”

“It’s an effective tool for people who want to use it,” he said. The card is a way for people to gain access to city services, he said.

City spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton shared the following anecdotes of how people have used the card, gleaned from a City Hall intern’s interviews with people at Junta and in the city’s prison re-entry program: opening a bank account, getting a Costco membership, cashing checks at Western Union, getting work at a florist and a factory, getting health insurance, accessing a food pantry, and applying for a bus pass.

At first outside grants paid staff to administer the program from a separate office. Now the city has folded the work into the Office of Vital Statistics; existing employees there are handling the cards. Benton claimed that because existing staff has “absorbed” the work, “there is no specific cost attributed to issuing the card.”

But while the card can be a way to get library books or help open a bank account, it’s had a “much larger impact in terms of defining community expectations,” DeStefano said. “It’s about defining New Haven as an open and welcoming community.”

“I think as a whole it’s had an impact of people feeling more included in the New Haven community,” said Latrina Kelly, deputy head of Junta. “People have felt more welcome in New Haven.”

Father James Manship of Saint Rose of Lima Church, which has a large immigrant population, said he encourages new arrivals to Fair Haven to get the card. “In and of itself it’s a good thing. It’s just that sense of we’re all here together. We’re part of this larger fabric of the city of New Haven.”

That sense of community has had direct and tangible results in Fair Haven, DeStefano said. “Why is Grand Avenue loaded with small businesses and Dixwell isn’t?”

The card has helped make New Haven a safe and inviting place for immigrants to invest their time and money, to create businesses and raise families. “It does promote a sense that New Haven is a destination community,” DeStefano said. That sense can lead to “economic vitality and wealth creation,” he said.

Another effect of the card has been to create connections between people and organizations in the city working on immigrant rights, DeStefano said.

Those connections came into play when the city resisted the federal “Secure Communities” program that allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to request the detention of immigrants arrested by local police. The mayor said they’ll come into play again later this summer as young immigrants in the city begin to sign up for “deferred action” under President Obama’s new plan to stop deporting some immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

The real value of the card is “creating a sense of connection between people,” DeStefano said.

Confidence With Cops

Some of the most important connections have been created between immigrants and cops, police said

“This has actually bolstered relationships between police and the people who have these cards. It’s given people the confidence to call us,” said Officer Hartman.

“Prior to it coming out, undocumented immigrants were often afraid to report violations for fear of deportation,” said Assistant Chief Luiz Casanova. He was the district manager in Fair Haven when the Resident Card was introduced. “We had a number of crimes go unreported. Witnesses of crimes did not come forward. Horrific crimes—sexual assaults, rapes, home invasions.”

“At least 90 percent of my robbery victims were Hispanics and Hispanic immigrants,” Casanova said. “People got murdered in the district and we couldn’t get people to come forward.”

After the card came out—and after the mayor issued a general order forbidding cops from asking people about their immigration status—more people began reporting crimes, Casanova said. Even with that increase in reporting, crime in Fair Haven decreased by about 20 percent in the first two years after the card came out, he said.

“That’s huge in our line of work,” Casanova said. “I have no way of proving that the ID card is the direct reason, but it didn’t happen by mistake.”

“Residents felt they have a stake in the community,” Casanova said. “We still reap the benefits.” People are less intimidated to talk to police. Traffic stops became more efficient because “we were able to ID people pretty quickly.” Another benefit: “The re-entry population also really uses that ID card,” he said. People come out of prison, they have no license, but they can get an Elm City Resident Card.

“It’s a great tool for us.”

Challenges Ahead

On Grand Avenue last week, Mexican-born Ricardo Perez (pictured) pulled out his Elm City Resident Card. The expiration date read “7/24/12.” He was among the first to get the card five years ago and will be among the first to have his card expire, this week. He said he doesn’t plan to renew it.

“For what?” he said in Spanish. “They don’t accept it. Practically, it doesn’t work.”

Perez said he’s tried to use the card to open accounts at two banks and at Macy’s. They didn’t accept the card and he had to use his Mexican passport.

“In order to continue to make the card viable and relevant there would need to be consistent effort to add city services,” Matos said. “You have to upgrade it to make it continually relevant.” Like any product, the Resident Card needs to be continuously freshened up with new features or else it becomes irrelevant, Matos said.

“Nothing new has been added. There’s no new value that attaches to the card,” she said. “So I understand that someone wouldn’t want to renew it.”

A Nicaraguan woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she tried to open an account at First Niagara Bank with her card. She was told the card is good only for the library. “In my personal experience, it’s not useful,” she said.

The card was always intended to also serve as a debit card, Matos said. That was “the biggest challenge that we failed to meet.”

The cards are equipped with Parxmart technology that allows people to use them to pay for parking on some of the older meters in town. Matos’ successor as community service administrator for the city, Chisara Asomugha, is working on making the card a more full-fledged debit card, complete with perhaps a MasterCard or Visa logo.

The city has begun meeting with a consultant to do a feasibility study on a debit upgrade to the Resident Card, Asomugha said.

Beyond increased functionality, people and institutions need more education about the card and its benefits, said Kelly, Junta’s deputy director. Some immigrants still have “misgivings” about going to City Hall to apply for the card, she said.

“City Hall doesn’t feel welcoming,” she said. “People don’t know where to go.”

“You walk into vital statistics and there is not a single sign that says this is where you get your ID card,” Matos said. The ID card office used to be right near the front door to City Hall, she said.

“The city could do better to market the card and make sure that young people coming into the city” sign up, Matos said.

She and Kelly both suggested the city revive the mobile sign-up van that used to drive out into neighborhoods and sign people up for the card. It would help to “sort of revive the card a little bit,” Kelly said.

Benton said the mobile ID unit has been has been reactivated and will be deployed on Mondays according to this schedule. The van will also be at all anniversary events this week.

DeStefano said the next phase for the card is to make it a “platform for accessing financial services” The card could be a gateway for opening bank accounts and “starting banking relationships.”

Told about Perez’s experience of banks not accepting the card, DeStefano said the city “did outreach early on with the banks,” to get them on board with the program. It wouldn’t hurt to do more, he acknowledged. “I suppose there’s no reason not to do that.”

“We Live Here”

Celia Solano, who’s 39 and from Ecuador, passed by on Grand Avenue with her 6-year-old son Jeffrey. She said she has the Resident Card. It didn’t help her get a bank account, she said. But she uses it all the time to show residency and access care at the Fair Haven community health clinic.

About a third of the people who come in use the Resident Card as their primary ID, said Carmen Camacho, a parenting group coordinator at the clinic.

“It’s a good thing,” said Solano. “We have an ID to show we live here.”

Yolanda Guzman Elias, who’s 43 and from Mexico, was behind the counter of her one-year-old Mi Lupita Baker on Grand Avenue Monday morning.

“It’s good,” she said of the Elm City Resident Card she’s had for five years . “Some places don’t accept it. But some do.”

She said the card serves to identify herself “as a good person.” With the card, “I’m not afraid.”


Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: streever on July 23, 2012  2:58pm

“For what?” he said in Spanish. “They don’t accept it. Practically, it doesn’t work.”

I had a minor debate with the city about this when I told them what Mr. Perez has said above—they insisted that the card did work for opening bank accounts.

I called START a half-dozen times and asked about opening an account with the card—no one could confirm that this was possible, they were confused, and they kept telling me I needed a passport or a drivers license. I totally understand Mr. Perez’s feelings on the card being useless. After several weeks of blanket re-assurance from the city, I still was not one inch closer to being able to open a bank account at START.

This is the type of issue the city absolutely should be following up on. This program has great intentions—as do many city programs—but we have far more than 60 citizens who need bank accounts.

Warm fuzzies, academic theory, and good intentions are ultimately not sufficient in a city with escalating violence, an apathetic electorate, and a variety of social problems.

We need leadership, new ideas, follow-through, and engaged civic leaders who listen and work with all citizens—not just the ones who say what the Mayor wants to hear.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on July 23, 2012  3:00pm

Can they be used as voter ID cards by citizens who are eligible to vote but don’t have a driver’s license, or does that require getting a DMV-issued non-driver’s ID?

posted by: streever on July 23, 2012  3:07pm

Sidenote—some credit to Kica Matos for her honesty. I’ve always been impressed by Kica Matos’ downright honesty and directness—as exemplified where she calls the spade the spade in this article.

—The card was always intended to also serve as a debit card, Matos said. That was “the biggest challenge that we failed to meet.”—

This was beyond the city staff I spoke with to admit—I should have spoken to Matos, who is still an honest person without blinders on. Bravo to her.

posted by: Edward Francis on July 23, 2012  3:56pm

My Elm City Resident Card will expire in August.  I have used it for entrance to Lighthouse Park (driving in)and at the library.  I tried to use it for ID while cashing checks at a bank but it was not recognized.  Of course I had a drivers license but was testing the recognition of the Elm City Resident Card by the bank. I believe I paid $10.00 to obtain the city photo I.D. and perhaps a small fee to have it mailed to me. The card can be useful to some extent by all New Haven residents. I didn’t mine waiting in line at City Hall to obtain it. There is no need for me to renew it.  It is now a collectors item.

posted by: theresatwist on July 23, 2012  5:25pm

As an international student at Yale, the Elm City Resident ID has been incredibly useful: many of us don’t have US drivers’ licenses and don’t want to carry our passports around every day (losing a passport often means having to travel to an embassy in DC for a replacement, not to mention getting a visa re-issued, etc.)

I am aware Elm City Resident ID wasn’t created for Yale international students, but I think advertising the card among this group for instance is also a way of bridging the gaps between city/immigration communities/university. I only found out about the card through the an article a few years’ back in the NHI - Yale never told us there was a simple, cheap, and effective local ID which we should take advantage of.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on July 23, 2012  5:32pm

Residents felt they have a stake in the community,” Casanova said. “We still reap the benefits.” People are less intimidated to talk to police. Traffic stops became more efficient because “we were able to ID people pretty quickly.” Another benefit: “The re-entry population also really uses that ID card,” he said. People come out of prison, they have no license, but they can get an Elm City Resident Card.

You got this one right as far as Traffic stops became more efficient.I was driving last year on the post road in orange when one of these Immigrants hit me from behind and total my car.He had no drivers license,But he had a Elm City Resident Cards.The orange poice came and put him in there car.Now I want to know if I can sue the city of New Haven for the loss of my car.Under the real I D act of 2005 these cards will be no good.

posted by: Lynn Smith on July 23, 2012  7:40pm

I am sorry that Streever had difficulties in opening an account at START using his Elm City card as primary ID.  I have been with the bank since its opening in December 2010, and am a member of the senior team which designed and wrote policy and procedure, and since our first day in operation we have accepted the card as a primary form of identification for the opening of a bank account.  All of our customer service representatives are thoroughly familiar with our procedure.  Over the past months, for example, we have opened a number of accounts for Youth@Work members.  Many of them used the Elm City Card as their primary ID for their very first bank accounts.

Now, sometimes there are other reasons that a bank may not open an account for a consumer.  For example, there may be past banking issues as reported by CheckSystems that need to be cleared up first. 

If Streever would like to contact me directly, and bring his Elm City Card as primary ID, along with a secondary ID such as a utility bill or a major credit card in his name, I would be happy to open an account for him.

Lynn Smith, SVP, Start Community Bank

posted by: streever on July 23, 2012  11:01pm


I wasn’t sure if it was possible, so I called (about 6 times), because each time I called, the staff answering the phone insisted that the card would not be sufficient.

I informed a city employee who told me each time that it was just a mistake—I never even got to give my name when I called START.

I kept calling because I was genuinely confused—on one hand, the person answering the phone at START said no, on the other, City Hall said yes.

I’d talk to the reception/whoever is answering phones and make sure they know it is a valid ID.