Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A city ID card for undocumented immigrants: How would it work?

The New Haven, Conn.
The New Haven, Conn. "ElmCity Resident Card," one of several municipal ID cards around the country
Screen shot from

Los Angeles city officials are proposing a multi-use library ID card that undocumented immigrants could use not only in city libraries, but as an alternate form of identification that would allow them access to other services, including banking at some institutions.

The idea is bound to draw controversy, but it's hardly unique. Several cities around the country have municipal identification cards, including San Francisco. And while Los Angeles' proposed card could be more limited than some, it worth taking a look at what the cards can and can't do.

San Francisco's municipal website has a list of what its city ID entitles users to:

The SF City ID Card is available to all San Francisco residents and can:

  • Serve as proof of identity and residency
  • Include information about the card holder's medical conditions or allergies
  • List an emergency contact
  • Provide discounts on San Francisco family excursions, restaurants, museums, and more
  • Be used as a public library card
  • Serve as a form of identification to open a checking account at participating banks
  • Serve as a form of identification to open a Family Account with the Recreation and Parks Department

It notes, however, that the city ID card is "not a license to drive, not intended to be used as proof of legal age to purchase alcohol or tobacco, and not intended to be accepted by federal agencies for federal identification or other official purposes."

According to the Los Angeles Times, the card that is being proposed by Councilman Richard Alarcon would have the same restrictions. But like in San Francisco, L.A. resident cardholders would be able to use the cards for banking services, including direct depost and ATM withdrawals in stores and shopping centers. The cards would be established in partnership with a private company and would cost applicants a nominal fee. From the story:

Alarcon said that in his Northeast Valley district, some immigrants who don't use banks end up being gouged by payday lenders or robbed if they keep large sums of cash on hand.

"They can be scammed and taken advantage of," Alarcon said. "This will help end that."

In the cities that offer them, municipal identification cards vary. In Washington, D.C., for example, the DC One Card requires applicants to have identification such as a driver's license, permanent resident card or visa, making these more difficult for undocumented immigrants to obtain. In New Haven, Connecticutt, meanwhile, foreign consular identification cards are acceptable for applicants. Not all of the cards offer a banking function, either. Oakland's yet-to-be-rolled-out ID card, initially approved three years ago, is set to the first with a debit card function, although this is still in the works and the cards may not in use for several more months.

Plans for the L.A. card aren't too far along. Alarcon introduced a motion with the idea Aug. 14, according to his staff, and it could be at least two months before the matter comes back before the council for approval.