As a whirlwind of city illegal immigrants, city activists and Yalies descended on City Hall on Thursday, their rallying point — New Haven’s proposed municipal ID program, which has caught national attention in recent months — earned a key nod from a Board of Aldermen committee.
With nearly 300 attendees wearing yellow ribbons, supporters of the program said the event was historic in its implications, even though the question poised to the Finance Committee of whether it should apply for private funding to support the ID program proved relatively uncontroversial. No adamant critics of the initiative, which would offer a card to all city dwellers regardless of their citizenship, were in sight as the motion passed unanimously following some debate over the legal and financial issues surrounding the plan.
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Testifying for only the third time in his 14 years as mayor before a subcommittee of the Board of Aldermen, DeStefano opened the meeting with a speech calling for the “fundamental acknowledgement of an individual’s worth.”
“Many of these names are Latino, but make no mistake that this is not a Latino issue; this is an issue of justice and human rights,” DeStefano said. “If New Haven doesn’t stand up, who will stand up? … In the end this is about who we are as a city.”
The meeting coincided with this week’s heated debate in Washington, D.C. over whether undocumented immigrants should be provided with a work visa, allowing them eventually to obtain permanent residence. The spirit behind New Haven’s program is significantly more receptive to illegal immigrants than the shaky compromise reached this week by Congress and President George W. Bush, which would create a temporary worker program for 12 million immigrants but secure the U.S.-Mexico border more stringently.
On a local level, New Haven’s plan also stands in contrast to recent proposals by 80 municipalities cracking down on illegal aliens. Riverside, NJ, for example, has a policy that calls for fining anyone who hires illegal immigrants or rents out apartments to them.
Russ Canocke, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said while he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the New Haven plan, he believes the attention surrounding the city’s ID program reinforces the need for comprehensive immigration reform on a national level.
Local resident Carmen Zambrano, who was handing out yellow ribbons for meeting attendees to wear, said the current situation poses a public safety threat because many illegal immigrants are afraid to cooperate with police. Zambrano said the city is responsible for issuing a form of identification that all residents can use.
“We are supporting an ID card for everybody,” she said. “People that live here and pay taxes should have the right to an ID.”
Dozens of journalists — particularly from Spanish-language media outlets — filled the room as attendees poked their faces through ID cards fashioned from cardboard, raising signs declaring, “We Are All Immigrants,” “Immigrants Raise Your Voice” and “You Have Rights, Don’t Let Anybody Deceive You.” All the major 2007 mayoral candidates, as well as key City Hall staff leaders, came to show their support.
Yalies were also in attendance. One of the key testimonies came from Yale Law School professor Michael Wishnie. And before the meeting, more than 50 students affiliated with Yale cultural groups lobbied Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 via e-mail to show their support for the program. Shalek, who sits on the Finance Committee, said in an e-mail that the effort was “by far the most proactive student interest I’ve seen regarding any New Haven issue during my term.” Shalek said he plans to meet with Yale officials to discuss the possibility of distributing the municipal ID cards — which would also function as debit cards usable at any city establishment — to incoming Yale freshmen.
Alan Montes ’10, a member of Latino cultural group Alianza, said he e-mailed Shalek in support of the proposal because he thinks it will give local residents without bank accounts a secure place to put their money. Montes said that while the municipal ID proposal is closely related to the controversy surrounding illegal immigration, thinking of the proposal as a means to uphold illegal immigration oversimplifies a complicated situation.
“It’s more productive to look at the pragmatic aspects of the ID,” he said. “It will make New Haven much safer.”
Natalie Spicyn ’05 MED ’10, who works at the HAVEN Free Clinic, said the municipal ID will benefit immigrants who are seriously ill but afraid to seek medical attention for fear of being deported. Spicyn said the current lack of a citywide form of identification prevents the clinic’s pharmacy from prescribing drugs to patients who do not have social security numbers.
“It becomes a public health problem,” she said.
Spicyn said about 60 percent of the clinic’s patients are undocumented, and well over 80 percent self-identify as immigrants.
The municipal ID proposal originated in a report — co-authored by the non-profit group Junta for Progressive Action and Yale Law School students under the direction of Wishnie — calling for improved relations with immigrant communities. Liam Brennan LAW ’07, who said he drafted the municipal ID card section of the proposal, said New Haven residents opposed to the ID have threatened to sue if the measure goes through.
“A lot of people think that this is the local government subverting the national government,” he said. “Some people are scared of immigration in general and think of it as a threat to the community.”
But there was also a flipside to the ID question: some immigrants are concerned that the cards will pose a threat to their continued residency. Wishnie said there are worries that the Department of Homeland Security might subpoena the city’s records in order to determine who is in the country illegally. Alternatively, one interpretation of the law suggests that members of the public might be able to request the records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Canocke declined to comment on the specific possibility of subpoenaing New Haven records, but he did not rule out the chance that law enforcement agents could request local documentation of residents for a federal investigation.
“Agents have a number of tools at their disposal in terms of enforcing our laws,” he said.
But Wishnie, once a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, offered to defend the city pro bono from any legal threats.
“There’s little question that the issuance of this card is fully within the powers of [providing for] the health and public safety of residents,” he said at the meeting. “No state or federal law impedes this city’s authority adopt this program.”
The Board of Aldermen will vote on formally implementing the ID program on June 4.