Policy

Council Passes Muni ID Bill Despite Unanswered Questions

The New York City Council voted overwhelmingly to pass a Municipal Identification card bill Thursday, though many questions remain about the bill’s implementation and the utility of the ID cards.

The identifcation card program has gained national attention over the past few months for its goal of bring an estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows." 

The bill, which passed 43 to 3, would provide a form of city ID to New Yorkers who can establish their identity and residency, and meet the minimum age requirement for eligibility. The ID would be separate from state or federal identification, and according to lawmakers, would be especially important to immigrants, the elderly, and transgender people. All city agencies will be required to accept the ID, though it will not be accepted at state and federal agencies.

However, many details have yet to be hammered out, including which personal documents would qualify someone for the ID. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito mentioned several times that the New York Police Department supported the ID card, attempting to assuage fears of potential fraud.

The Council said that it is still working with businesses to build incentives into the card to promote widespread use. As of now, it is unclear whether banks will accept the card, perhaps the most glaring question mark for immigrants who might struggle to open a bank account. City Councilwoman Debi Rose pointed to the potential danger that immigrants face from muggers as ‘walking ATMs,’ carrying large amounts of cash because of their lack of banking options.

“I’ve seen first hand how a lack of photo id can lead to tragic circumstances,” Rose said, citing the types of robberies that her district in Staten Island have witnessed in the past. “Many members of the Mexican immigrant community carried large amounts of cash on their persons. ... Once people opened bank accounts, the attacks stopped.” The IRS, however, already issues Taxpayer Identification Numbers to people who may not be U.S. citizens, but pay taxes, a fact that seemed to escape the Council on Thursday.

Councilman Carlos Menchaca, a co-sponsor of the bill, cited its passage as the fruit of a productive and progressive city government. “This is the direct manifestation of a Mayor and the City Council working together day in and day out,” he said. The passage of the bill is also certainly a feather in the cap of the first-term councilman.

Councilman Daniel Dromm, the other co-sponsor, joked that the ID is “the must-have accessory for all New Yorkers.”

But the humor underlies an important aspect of the ID card’s rollout: to succeed the ID must attain widespread use, including by people who already have alternate forms of ID. Councilmembers hinted at partnerships with private businesses, but the lack of incentive for pre-existing ID carriers was not included in the bill, and will be worked out in the coming months by the Mayor’s Office of Operations. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that the IDs would be rolled out by late 2014, or early 2015.

“The ID will only work if we find ways to encourage many New Yorkers to sign up,” said Councilman Dan Garodnick. “Today, it is not evident why many documented New Yorkers would want or need one.” New York City was among American localities with the lowest number of driver’s licenses among its residents, roughly 58 percent as of 2011.

Not everyone was happy about handing the bill over to the Mayor’s Office. Republican Minority Leader Vincent Ignizio, one of three Council members to vote against the bill, took issue with the vagueness of the legislation. The other "nay" votes came from Councilman Steven Matteo and Councilman Eric Ulrich—the only other two GOP members of the body. The lack of veteran status that could potentially be listed on the card was also a point of contention.

Councilmen Mark Treyger and Alan Maisel abstained, with Maisel voicing the concern that a program intended to bring people out of the shadows could instead be used as a weapon against them. “When we pass laws, we don’t pass the laws or write the laws to protect people from good government,” he said. “We are supposed to pass laws to protect people from bad government.”

Councilman Mark Weprin counseled his colleagues to “relax” and stop worrying about the lack of details in the legislation, and the potential for the card to be more of a stigma than a benefit.

“We live in the coolest city in the world,” Weprin said, “and now we’re going to have a membership card. … People [will] want to be part of that club.”

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