Phoenix Municipal ID May Endanger the Undocumented Immigrants It Seeks to Help

Councilman Jim Waring’s critical view of the municipal ID has been called the result of “white privilege,” though actually it is more the result of common sense.
Councilman Jim Waring’s critical view of the municipal ID has been called the result of “white privilege,” though actually it is more the result of common sense.
Gage Skidmore

What do you reckon many liberals and Latinos locally think about city government possibly having a master list of all the undocumented in Phoenix, with identifying photos, biometrics, and addresses, to boot?

Sounds like recalled former state Senate President Russell Pearce's wet dream, right? Particularly since law enforcement would have some — and potentially total — access to it.

Well, to judge by a recent 5-4 vote of the Phoenix City Council on the idea of creating a municipal ID, with the Democrats — including Mayor Greg Stanton — in the majority, lefties think this is a dandy idea.

To be clear, the vote taken by the council only authorizes city staff to put out a "request for information," seeking suggestions from vendors concerning a possible Phoenix municipal ID, which would allow certain folks who lack access to a driver's license or other forms of identification to obtain a picture ID with the city's imprimatur.

Generally, groups that would benefit from a municipal ID would fall into three categories: the undocumented, the homeless, and members of the transgender community. The last of these hypothetically would be allowed to choose their own gender identities.

But the ID mostly would "assist" the undocumented, who in Arizona and elsewhere endure an apartheid-like existence and dread of police interaction.

The ID would not identify someone as undocumented, but it would not need to, since the only reason to get the card, for the most part, is if you are in the country illegally and are prohibited from obtaining a state-issued ID from Arizona.

The Phoenix Latino human rights group Puente backs the plan, as does the ACLU of Arizona, One PHX ID, and a number of other well-intentioned organizations.

Which reminds me of that old saw about the road to perdition.

The ID would be of no use as a primary form of identification. Cardholders would not be able to use it to board an airplane. Or to secure employment (at least not legally). Social service agencies could not use it to identify you.

For encounters with the police, its usefulness is dubious. And yet, to listen to advocates for the ID, this is one of the main reasons it's needed: to help the undocumented with such encounters.

Republican state Senator John Kavanagh has dropped a bill to make the requirements for a muni ID the same as for a state driver's license.
Republican state Senator John Kavanagh has dropped a bill to make the requirements for a muni ID the same as for a state driver's license.

Nevertheless, during testimony in early December at Phoenix's Public Safety and Veterans Subcommittee, Assistant Police Chief Sandra Renteria initially testified that the municipal ID would carry the same weight as someone writing his or her name on a piece of paper.

She also compared it to a library card or a school ID, saying it would serve as a "starting point" to determine a person's identity.

Cynics liken the Phoenix ID's legal status to that of a Costco card or a gym membership card.

Police could run a cardholder's name, but unless the individual already had a driver's license or a criminal record, he or she would not be in the normal databases that cops use.

Would law enforcement have access to the database created by such a municipal ID program?

I mean, it seems unavoidable if a cop wants to verify information on an ID card.

Yet the ACLU of Arizona's point man on this issue, Will Gaona, insists that police access to this information would be limited.

The city itself could maintain the ID database, he told me, or might maintain it through a private-public partnership or a third party, such as a financial institution.

"There's an identifying number on [the card] that officers can verify, essentially," Gaona said of the second option. "It wouldn't necessarily be through the city. It would be through a third party."

But if the database is maintained by the city, could the state of Arizona pass a law mandating that law enforcement have carte blanche to the records or that they be shared with federal law enforcement?

Could the federal government, under another administration less sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented, gain access to the database and use it to round up people?

Gaona did not have answers to these questions, though certainly, even if the database were in private hands, law enforcement could gain access to it via subpoena.

Democrats like Greg Stanton think the muni ID is a grand idea, but it may have the opposite of its intended effect.
Democrats like Greg Stanton think the muni ID is a grand idea, but it may have the opposite of its intended effect.
Miriam Wasser

In the case of a bank or some other commercial institution's maintaining the file, there is the question of fees charged by the bank to individuals and the question of how a private party might use the information.

Whatever plan is adopted, it's supposed to be "cost neutral," but the city estimates that if it ran the project itself, it could cost as much as $800,000 to $5 million to jump-start.

Republican City Councilman Jim Waring has been a caustic critic of the proposal, mostly on the grounds of cost.

During the public safety committee hearing, he harped on the suggestion— initially made by muni-ID proponent Councilman Michael Nowakowski — that the new ID would be equivalent to writing your name on a piece of paper.

"One piece of paper, one ballpoint pen accomplishes exactly the same thing," he cracked.

Maybe not exactly, but close enough. Advocates argue that the municipal ID would help ameliorate the anxiety of undocumented witnesses and victims in speaking with law enforcement.

There is no requirement that witnesses or victims must present ID to law enforcement when asked, according to the ACLU, though they do have to give their names.

However, cops are intimidating by nature, and you would have to be damn sure of your rights not to cave in the face of such demands.

Another rub: Section 2b of Arizona's infamous immigration law, Senate Bill 1070, requires police officers to determine someone's immigration status if they have "reasonable suspicion" to believe someone is in the country illegally. (Note: When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down much of 1070, it let 2b stand.)

Wouldn't the muni ID be a red flag to law enforcement, particularly if the person presenting the ID is Hispanic?

Given such a circumstance, victim or not, a cop could contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the person could end up in ICE custody, if ICE arrives in time.

Gaona argues that the undocumented are trapped in a catch-22, because under the Phoenix PD's operations order dealing with immigration, lack of proper identification is a factor police may use to establish reasonable suspicion under SB 1070.

Delia Salvatierra, an immigration attorney known for her knack in springing clients from ICE custody, thinks the ID, at best, is a wash.

Practically speaking, "any ID that is not an Arizona driver's license is going to lead to reasonable suspicion," she told me.

And though Sheriff Joe Arpaio is boxed in on immigration by federal decree, as long as there are cops like him around, the ID could be used to racially profile people.

Currently, ICE has been cutting loose individuals who are not high priority, she said. That is, people who do not have a criminal record.

But this could change with the next presidential administration.

Would she advise her clients to get the muni ID?

"I would tell them they can join the bandwagon if they want, " she said, "but it's not going to help them one way or the other . . . ICE will laugh at it."

Moreover, civil rights activist Salvador Reza told me that he worries the proposal could give certain racist members of law enforcement "an excuse to go after people with those IDs."

During the City Council vote, Waring had to weather cries from certain members of the public that his view of the muni ID was affected by his "white privilege"

I would say his view of this proposal is affected by reality.

In any case, the entire debate may be moot as right-wing state Senator John Kavanagh, a backer of SB 1070, is proposing legislation requiring that such city IDs meet the same requirements as an Arizona driver's license.

Which given the very real threat of terrorism this country faces, is difficult to argue with, particularly because proponents of the muni ID don't know what sort of identification will be required to get a muni ID.

Nowakowski and others contend that at the very least, a muni ID could help the undocumented get a library card or gain access to the schools their kids attend.

That may be true, but the real reason it was proposed is because we have a large undocumented population that fears talking to police, for any reason.

Thing is, until this country has immigration reform, and until 2b of 1070 is knocked off the books locally, undocumented residents of Phoenix will have good reason to be wary of law enforcement.

Speaking to the many who showed at the recent City Council vote and gave emotional testimony about having been treated harshly or enduring humiliation because of a lack of a legitimate ID, Waring doled out some hard-nosed common sense.

"That card would not solve your problems anyway," he said. "We will have spent a lot of time and money, raised your hopes, had a lot of sessions, accomplished zero."

As I already have discussed above, a municipal ID could make things worse for its undocumented bearers.

And here's another potential ill effect: If someone is caught working under an assumed name or Social Security number, a municipal ID could be used by prosecutors to prove that the individual did so knowingly, with intent to defraud.

The ACLU likes to point to other locales that have successful municipal ID programs, but these places, for the most part, do not have a law like SB 1070 or Arizona's history of anti-immigrant hate.

Perhaps all of these issues I've mentioned can be resolved, short of a sea change regarding immigration in this country.

Till they are, the Phoenix municipal ID remains a bad idea.

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