ELIZABETH, NJ — Elizabeth is soon to become one of several municipalities in New Jersey to offer photo identification cards for the undocumented immigrant population, along with other underserved members of the community such as the homeless, elderly, foster youth and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Last week, Elizabeth city council members voted unanimously to approve a city ordinance benefitting undocumented immigrants who do not have any form of photo identification. A final vote on the ordinance is expected next month.
Nearly half of the residents of Elizabeth were born in countries other than the United States, according to the U.S. census, and it is one of several municipalities in the state that has considered adopting a municipal identification card program. It is predicted that approximately four to five thousand residents will receive the municipal cards during the first year, with issuance of the cards beginning as early as December.
Municipalities across the state have distributed approximately 10,000 ID cards since 2015, with Newark being the first to adopt the practice. Roselle, Perth Amboy, Highland Park, Asbury Park, Trenton and many other cities have adopted some form of municipal identification card.
While the cards cannot be a used as a form of federal identification or provide any type of immigration or employment authorization, it will provide much-necessary photo identification for the undocumented immigrant population. Opening bank accounts, access to social services and medical care, filling of prescriptions and enrolling in adult education courses are just some of the services that undocumented immigrants will be able to receive with the new ID cards.
The ID cards will also help to make the undocumented immigrant population less vulnerable, as the inability to open bank accounts leaves many walking around with large amounts of cash. In addition, many undocumented people are often afraid to report crimes.
The cards are crucial for underserved populations who often are unable to obtain drivers’ licenses, passports or other government-issued IDs.
According to the ordinance, transgender and gender nonconforming people will be able to designate a gender, regardless of their biological sex or gender designation on previous identity documents.
City agencies and police, as well as some businesses and banks, will recognize the municipal IDs, which can also be used as a library card. In addition, some businesses will offer discounts with use of the card as an incentive to get people to obtain the cards.
Elizabeth residents will be able to use the cards to identify themselves during traffic stops, apply for charity services or get care at a hospital.
The photo ID cards will include a person’s name, date of birth, address and an expiration date, and cardholders must be 14 or older. The cards, which will be distributed through the city’s public library, will carry a $15 fee for adults and a $7 fee for children. Fee waivers are available for people who cannot afford the cost.
According to Sara Cullinane, of Make the Road New Jersey, an organization assisting immigrant families based in Elizabeth, the municipal ID program has been a priority for a long time. “The campaign to win access to municipal IDs has been a priority of the immigrant and working-class Elizabeth families who form Make the Road New Jersey for the past year and a half,” Cullinane told LocalSource in an email.
According to Cullinane, Make the Road members and allies collected more than 3,000 signatures on a petition urging the city to adopt the ID program. “The members worked tirelessly to build support in the community,” Cullinane said.
A coalition of social service providers, faith groups, Elizabeth Public Library, re-entry groups, health care providers, banks and community groups, including the Union County Council for Young Children, the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless and Josephine’s Place, came together to support the ID program, Cullinane told LocalSource. “In June, we hosted a community forum about access to identification with 200 community members in attendance,” said Cullinane. “We are grateful for the support of our mayor and city council, particularly Council President Nelson Gonzalez and Councilman Manny Grova.”
According to Cullinane, IDs can help city residents in obtaining access to city services, but it is particularly valuable to the homeless, foster youth, formerly incarcerated people and immigrants because these populations often struggle to obtain government-issued IDs. “Every day we are asked to present ID — at the pharmacy, in interactions with law enforcement, to get into court or to pick up our children from school,” Cullinane said.
Heraclio Hernandez, a Make the Road New Jersey member and immigrant father whose four children attend Elizabeth Public Schools, said that the new municipal ID’s offers him and his family a much-needed sense of security. “I have faced serious barriers because I do not have access to a government-issued ID,” said Hernandez. “I could not pick up my daughter from school when she was sick and I have been stopped by police on my way to work and faced arrest simply because I did not have a valid photo ID. The municipal ID program will help me feel safe in the city I have called home for nearly ten years.”
Linda Flores-Tober, executive director for the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, testified at the council’s hearing on the matter last week in support of the initiative. “To be homeless is to be anonymous, but to be homeless without ID is to be a non-person,” said Flores-Tober. “Municipal IDs are good not only for our immigrant brothers and sisters, but more broadly will build a sense of community and belonging to our homeless residents. Not having an ID can be a barrier to services and rebuilding a life. We are excited that the city of Elizabeth is doing this.”
Cullinane shared a story about a resident of Roselle — the second city in the state to pass a municipal ID law — who told Cullinane that she was able to open a bank account with her ID. “Another individual was able to use the ID to pick up her children from school, and another city resident was able to obtain a license to open her own business,” said Cullinane. “Municipal IDs are not a magic bullet — they are not employment authorization, they are not accepted by all banks or business and they do not help cardholders qualify for benefits for which they are otherwise ineligible. But they do have a meaningful impact on people’s lives, especially those who have faced barriers to obtaining government-issued photo ID.”
Cullinane maintains that the new IDs help build community safety and identity. “If everyone in our city has access to identification, residents will be more likely to report a crime or feel comfortable interacting with law enforcement,” said Cullinane. “After the recent bombings in Elizabeth, building community safety for all is critically important. I am so pleased that Elizabeth is taking an important step to make the city more inclusive for everyone.”
Currently, undocumented immigrants and other underserved populations cannot obtain a driver’s license in the state, which leaves members of these communities without any proper form of identification.
In order to obtain ID cards, applicants will need to prove their identity and residency in the city of Elizabeth, and secondary documents — such as letters from social service agencies — will be accepted during the application process.