At its annual conference in New Orleans on Thursday, the National League of Cities honored New Haven for its ground-breaking immigration policies — in particular, the creation of the Elm City Resident Card.

The league selected New Haven from among 168 other cities in its population category as the gold winner of the Award for Municipal Excellence. As part of the award, the city will choose a nonprofit organization to receive an honorary $2,000 prize from the league.

One gold and one silver medal are awarded to cities in each of the four population categories. The awards are intended to recognize creative local solutions to national challenges and to encourage other cities to follow in their footsteps, NLC President and Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson said in a statement released by the city.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said in a statement that the city’s immigration policies focus on meeting the needs of immigrants and fostering a sense of solidarity in the New Haven community. Programs such as the Elm City Resident Card help build community relationships and promote public safety, he said.

City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the award is the first the city has received from the NLC.

“It’s an exceptional win for us,” she said. “To receive the gold award [as our first award], especially when there are so many other great cities and projects to choose among, is certainly something we are very proud of.”

Mayorga said the award is especially significant in light of San Francisco’s recent approval of a similar municipal identification program that awards ID cards to city residents regardless of their immigration status.

In voting to approve the ID card Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors cited reasons similar to those presented by the ID’s proponents in New Haven. Supporters have said the cards will make immigrants less fearful of reporting crimes to police and provide access to banks in order to make immigrants less of a target for theft.

Several community groups have objected to the ID cards, arguing that they violate federal immigration law.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re awarding [DeStefano] for breaking the law,” Dustin Gold, founder of the anti-illegal-aliens group Community Watchdog Project, said of the league’s award. “If that is what this group wants to do, it’s their prerogative.”

But Mayorga said these groups do not speak for most members of the New Haven community, and the city looks forward to continuing to promote the program throughout the city, including on Yale’s campus.

During last week’s New Haven Solidarity Week — an event sponsored by 26 undergraduate and graduate student organizations to promote the new cards — the city signed up over 550 members of the Yale community for the ID program.

Dwight Hall Executive Committee co-chair Jessica Bialecki ’08, who helped organize NHSW, said she was excited to hear that New Haven had received recognition for the program.

“We are continuing to encourage students who were not able to get the card to go down to City Hall and sign up,” she said. “This new announcement should motivate Yale students even further, as New Haven has taken a very prominent spot in the national scene.”

New Haven won in the 50,001-150,000 population category. Other gold winners include Lenexa, Kan., for a watershed management project and Milwaukee, Ill., for a park venture.