Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy

Documenting the Undocumented: A Review of the United States' First Municipal ID Program

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy

Documenting the Undocumented: A Review of the United States' First Municipal ID Program

Article excerpt


In May 2007, the bipartisan McCain-Kennedy Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill failed to garner the necessary votes to pass in Congress. The bill would have bolstered border security, placed the country's undocumented immigrants--most of whom are Hispanic/Latino--on a pathway to citizenship, and changed the visa allocation criteria. As The Economist (2007) cited, some cities took the immigration issue on themselves: "As the federal government ... proved itself incapable of formulating an immigration policy, local governments are stepping in as they did on health care and the environment."

In this context, some cities enacted policies cracking down on undocumented immigrants. For instance, Farmers Branch, TX, Escondido, CA, Hazleton, PA, Riverside, NJ, and Pahrump, NV, passed laws banning undocumented immigrants from renting apartments or houses and punishing landlords who defied these policies (CNN 2008). In contrast, the City of New Haven, CT, received national and international attention for its unique, immigrant-friendly response.

New Haven passed a policy to solve an issue articulated by Jorge G. Castaneda, Mexico's former Secretary of Foreign Affairs. In an interview, Castaneda said, "Undocumented immigrants in the United States desperately need a form of identification" (Castaneda 2009). Elsewhere Castaneda (2007) notes that these undocumented people "have nothing: no identification from either [their home or host] country, no photo ID, no name, no number, no address; they live in a legal limbo, without registry in a registered world."

In light of this and other problems, New Haven created the Elm City Resident Card, the first municipal identification card in the United States for all city residents regardless of immigration status. Since then, similar programs have been created in San Francisco and Oakland in California and in Trenton, Princeton, and Mercer County in New Jersey. However, before other cities consider adopting a similar policy, we suggest a thorough analysis of the relevant issues. We aim to assist such analysis with our careful review of New Haven's initiative. Specifically, we test whether the Elm City Resident Card helps undocumented immigrants participate in day-to-day activities.

This article begins by providing a context for the analysis, informed by considerable research and in-depth interviews with key actors involved in the most recent immigration debates (e.g., former Mexican President Vicente Fox) and in the implementation of the Elm City Resident Card policy (e.g., Mayor of New Haven John DeStefano). This section offers a historical overview of Hispanic immigration to the United States and New Haven. It then traces the events that led to the creation of New Haven's municipal ID and records the issues that surrounded the enactment of this controversial policy.

Next, the policy analysis section contains our data-driven evaluation of New Haven's ID program and is guided by the following two questions:

1. Is it true that Hispanics living in the United States, as compared to their White/Anglo counterparts, are in greater need of identification, regardless of their citizenship status?

2. To what extent is New Haven's municipal ID perceived as a legitimate form of identification in the context of regular interactions?

To address these questions, we ran a field experiment following the example of existing audit studies on bias (Ayres 1991; Hebl et al. 2002; Pager 2003; King et al. 2006; Fried et al. 2010).

In response to the first query, we randomly assigned Hispanic and White actors to make check payments in a total of 217 retail stores and measured the number of times the members of each ethnic group were asked to present identification. Our decision to run the study in this context was simple. Social integration involves being able to partake fully in day-to-day activities, such as shopping. …

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