In a visit to the Yale Law School on Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff condemned a New Haven program that offers municipal identification cards to illegal immigrants, assailing the initiative as the wrong answer to a problem that falls under the purview of Congress.

“Enabling people to break the law,” Chertoff told students in response to a question about the program, “is not something that I can endorse.”

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It should be the federal government, he said, that takes action to address illegal immigration. And in an interview following his lecture, Chertoff repeated that claim — and elaborated on his criticism of what is known as the Elm City Resident Card.

“I don’t think that having identifications to enable people to live illegally is a good thing,” he told the News. “It’s inconsistent with the law as we have it.”

Rather than relying on local municipalities to respond to the issue with a multiplicity of policies, the proper solution, he said, is for Congress to pass legislation dealing with illegal immigration.

“In the meantime, obviously you can’t make people who are here illegally, you can’t transform them into legal residents by giving them an ID card,” Chertoff said.

The New Haven Board of Aldermen in June overwhelmingly approved the creation of the ID cards, which since have been made available to all of New Haven’s 125,000 residents, including the approximately 10,000 to 12,000 illegal aliens who live in the city. The cards provide access to all city services, ranging from parks to libraries, and also serve as a debit card at local merchants.

But to city officials, among them Mayor John DeStefano Jr., a strong backer of the initiative, there was another benefit, too. The adoption of the ID cards was motivated, at least in part, by a desire on the part of city officials to address public-safety concerns in the immigrant community. There, proponents argued, thieves were preying on illegal immigrants, whose undocumented status precluded them from opening bank accounts, and thus necessitated their carrying large amounts of cash, or stowing it away in their homes.

Chertoff said it was “between the mayor and the voters” how safety concerns regarding the illegal aliens who live in New Haven should be tackled, and that it was not his place to ascertain whether there indeed was a security problem that needed to be addressed. But he made clear that regardless of whatever problem city officials were hoping to counteract, the ID-card initiative should not have been the solution.

“Enabling people to violate the law is not a good thing,” Chertoff said. “Certainly creating a situation that attracts illegal aliens to come and to get identification strikes me as not a particularly good thing.”

But in New Haven, where the ID program’s success has spurred similar programs in a range of other cities, Chertoff’s visit did not receive an entirely warm welcome. In the classroom where Chertoff spoke, silent protesters held up a banner that read, “Your Actions Destroy Families,” referring to raids by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch on undocumented immigrants. And in the Law School’s Levinson Auditorium, which served as an overflow room for Chertoff’s lecture, scores of attendees hissed when the homeland security czar, his image projected on a screen at the front of the auditorium, criticized the ID program in his question-and-answer session.

City officials rejected his argument, too. Told of Chertoff’s comments Monday night, a spokeswoman for DeStefano, Jessica Mayorga, defended New Haven’s program.

“This card in no way promotes any type of illegal activity — it allows access to city services irrespective of status,” Mayorga said in a telephone interview.

“The federal government has certainly not done its part in achieving realistic reform or implementing realistic policy reform,” she continued. “We implemented this program; it may not work for the rest of the country, but it works for us, and we are pleased with the success of our programs.”

Jessica Bialecki ’08, who assisted with the organization of New Haven Solidarity Week, which signed up some 550 Yale affiliates in a week-long promotion of the ID card in November, made the same argument in response to Chertoff’s complaints. The ID-card program, she said, is “a pragmatic response to a real local need.”

“I think that the national government is trying to find a scapegoat at a local level,” she added, referring to his criticizing the city’s program.

Indeed, this was not the first time Chertoff and his department have been on the receiving end of criticism from city officials, students and residents who back the ID card program. In June, two days after the Board of Aldermen approved the card, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided Fair Haven, a predominantly Latino area of the city, and arrested 32 undocumented immigrants.

In public comments, DeStefano lambasted the Department of Homeland Security for what he called “retaliation” against the city, a charge a Chertoff spokesman called “bogus.”

And Monday, Chertoff made it clear: Elm City Resident Card in hand or not, in the eyes of the federal government, an illegal immigrant is an illegal immigrant, plain and simple. New Haven’s ID program, he said, presents no solution to a bottom-line reality: that undocumented residents are violating the law.

“There’s only one way to be here legally,” he said in the interview, “and that’s to comply with the law as it is — until the law is changed.”

—Aaron Bray and Martine Powers contributed reporting.