Chicago ID program stokes immigrants’ fears

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As Chicago officials prepare a system to ensure residents without state identification have access to public services, immigration advocates are concerned the program could help federal officials find and deport residents who are in the country without legal status.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has championed the creation of a city identification card to provide proof of residence, mirroring a system used in other cities to help residents who lack other identification do everything from opening a bank account to checking out library books.

But advocates fear the program will gather data that federal officials could seek in order to carry out a crackdown on undocumented immigrants once president-elect Donald Trump takes office in January. The identification programs are being viewed as one more potential battle between the incoming Trump administration and big-city mayors who have vowed to protect their residents from expected stepped-up efforts to deport immigrants who lack legal permission to be in the United States.

City officials say they are taking steps to ensure that the program does not become a way to help federal officials if the country intensifies deportation measures. Emanuel has been among the mayors declaring they will stand up against the threat of a crackdown, while Trump has said he intends to deport two to three million immigrants in the country illegally.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the municipal identification database is likely  “one where there would be a real fight.”

Chicago officials say they are carefully considering how to gather documents for identification cards without creating a resource for federal immigration authorities. “We’re researching the best process to hold information, considering the climate,” said Seemi Choudry, director of the mayor’s Office of New Americans, which will administer the program. “It’s one of the most crucial parts. We’re working with the technology team internally to take that feedback into serious consideration.”

Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said in a statement the organization has advised the city not to retain documents collected through the program. That would follow the practice of San Francisco and other cities that do not keep identifying documents about cardholders.

De Blasio said that addresses and other personal information collected about the city’s undocumented residents in connection with the identification card may be deleted before Trump takes office.

More than 900,000 New York City residents have enrolled in the program there. The municipal identification program was initially conceived in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2007 for immigrants to have some form of identification, and has been replicated in several cities across the country.

Municipal identification cards are available to any city resident, though immigrants are one of the main groups of residents the program is intended to help, along with homeless residents, the formerly incarcerated, the elderly, the youth, and LGBT residents.

“We did send a letter recommending that the city take care not to collect and maintain certain data or data about individuals, so that data couldn’t later be exploited for immigration enforcement purposes,” said Julia Harumi Mass, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, of San Francisco’s program, which began issuing identification cards in 2009.

Last month, Emanuel and several other mayors declared their commitment to “sanctuary cities,” despite Trump’s threat to cut off federal funding from cities that refuse to act as proxy immigration authorities on behalf of the federal government.

Should the new administration try to get information stored by municipal identification programs, it’s too soon to say whether a federal agency could legally obtain it, Mass said.

“We’d need the federal government to come up with what law it’s invoking to assert this kind of access,” she said. “If it were just to do immigration enforcement, that’s pretty overbroad, in the sense that the city ID is available to everyone.”

Similar fears have arisen about President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which since 2012 has temporarily shielded some 740,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. Trump has declared he would end the program upon taking office, and a California congresswoman has asked Obama to protect the identities and information of those who applied for protection under the executive action.

“Vulnerable people were invited to come forward for temporary benefits, and it looks like that information might be used against them,” said Michael Jarecki, vice chair of the Chicago chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who has represented many clients seeking the program’s protection. “There’s always the concern with anyone who interacts with a government agency, is whether or not that’s going to be shared to their detriment.”

What is unfortunate, Jarecki said, is that the implementation of the act in 2012 “seemed like assurance from the Obama administration … that there wasn’t going to be this witch hunt.”