The Benefits of Detroit’s New Municipal ID Program for Undocumented Immigrants

On Tuesday, the Detroit City Council approved an ordinance to make available a new Detroit municipal identification card. With a 7-0 vote, the City Council set the framework for issuing and accepting municipal IDs. This is huge news for immigrants in the city!

Beginning this fall, undocumented people, individuals struggling with homelessness, returning citizens, some elderly residents, and others who are not eligible to obtain traditional forms of identification like a driver’s license, will have the opportunity to open bank accounts, gain entry to museums, rent apartments, and access other social services unavailable to them without identification.

Detroit now joins a growing list of U.S. cities that issue municipal ID cards to residents including New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and others. New Haven, Connecticut issued the first municipal identification cards in the U.S. in 2007. San Francisco modeled their program on New Haven’s in 2009.

The way the system works now often inadvertently discriminates undocumented immigrants. The Michigan Secretary of State’s office asks for a Social Security number and other documents to prove a person’s legal presence for a state-issued ID card. For immigrants this can prove difficult, especially if they are undocumented because they fear exposing themselves to deportation. Up to 30% of Detroit residents lack either the documents or standing needed to obtain a Michigan-issued driver’s license.

The initiative was spearheaded by Detroit Council member Raquel Castañeda-Lopez, who has been working on the initiative for months alongside the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs, which began operations in October 2015. Mayor Duggan appointed Fayrouz Saad as Director of the office, which aims to serve as a gateway for immigrant communities while also promoting economic development in Detroit. Saad is also involved with helping connect immigrants to government and non-profit resources that will help them start and successfully run small businesses.

The ID program is part of a series of efforts to empower residents who have long been left out of civic dialogue. “This really honors a basic human right of being recognized in society,” councilwoman Castañeda-Lopez told the Metro Times after the vote.

Soon after being elected, Castaneda-Lopez co-founded the city’s immigration task force, which voted to make Detroit a “Welcoming City” as part of a national effort organized by Welcoming America.

According to New York Councilman Carlos Menchaca, whose efforts led to the passing of NYC’s ID legislation in 2014, “Detroit is part of a national movement of cities that are taking responsibility to do what Congress has not been able to do, and that’s joining in the chorus of hope for our immigrant communities.”

The role of cities as actors and activists is an important one. Nationwide efforts countering the toxic narrative surrounding immigrants is starting to take shape. Cities can advance equitable diversity. The first step is to remove barriers at the top and create enhanced opportunities for diverse populations. The second step takes place at city and community levels, where inclusion and depolarization must occur. Detroit is now a city on its way to being a place of shared and equal belonging, regardless of where one is from.

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