Conflict over the Elm City Resident Cards is nothing new. Since the program’s inception in the summer of 2007, anti-immigrant groups have spent hours protesting the program and significant amounts of money filing lawsuits and then appeals against the state FIOC. The national government has had its say, too: Just after the Board of Aldermen passed the initiative, New Haven’s immigrant community became the target of ICE raids, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff condemned the cards when he spoke at Yale Law School last spring.

But the debate took a turn last weekend when the Community Watchdog Project decided to use the Mexican flag flying on the Green as a rallying call to decry both the program and the “treasonous” Mayor DeStefano.

It worked; Co-Founder and Chief Strategist Dustin Gold’s blog post spurred an influx of hate e-mail and phone calls to City Hall. And let’s be clear. While the CWP claims to be protesting a violation of United States code, its actions show that the crux of the issue is something far from that. One e-mail charged, “It’s not our flag, and we’re sick of paying for illegal aliens and all their babies and having their kids overrun our schools and downgrade our country.”

While DeStefano’s response — gathering leaders of various ethnic backgrounds to speak out against CWP’s actions — was a strong symbolic gesture, much more is needed to address the underlying issue: New Haven as a safe haven.

Unfortunately, actions by DeStefano’s office in recent weeks have inhibited unilateral government support. At a finance committee meeting Sept. 11, the Board of Aldermen refused to vote to accept $150,000 in private contributions to fund the program for another year. Its inaction represented a marked shift from the summer of 2007, when the Board voted overwhelmingly in favor of the card.

City Community Services Director Kica Matos has done an admirable job raising $150,000 to fund the program through non-taxpayer dollars, but according to the FY09 budget, she is still $70,000 short. And when nobody from City Hall came to allay the aldermen’s fears of cutting into the already stretched city budget, the vote to accept the private funding failed. But the aldermen’s support of the program is critical. As Alderwoman Francis “Bitsie” Clark noted, not passing the measure sends a bad message “to people who are opposed to the city’s attitude on the ID card.”

The next meeting is set for Oct. 7. Hopefully, by that time city officials will be able to get the aldermen on board.

However, aldermanic support alone will not the ID program make. For the Elm City Resident Card to remain a viable protector of New Haven’s immigrant community, DeStefano must work to expand the program. Although the Freedom of Information Commission appeal was dismissed on a technicality last week, it underscores the importance of a large, well-supported ID program. If such an appeal ever went through, the city would be forced to reveal the names and addresses of those that had registered for a card. While repercussions would be felt no matter the size of the registered population, more names means more time and more money.

Admittedly, the city has taken steps to woo support. City officials worked to make the card function as a debit card for those without bank accounts, a library card and a parking-meter feeder. They’ve also held registration drives, such as last weekend’s Family Fun Day. However, despite these efforts, according to City Hall estimates, only 6,500 New Haven residents — 5 percent of the city’s population — currently possess an ID card.

Maybe the problem is registration itself. The Office of New Haven Residents is open from 9-5 each weekday, which makes it difficult for those working outside of downtown. At registration drives, such as last year’s solidarity week at Yale, ID seekers are occasionally turned away or told to return later so as not to overwhelm the city staff. Especially since many non-immigrants have chosen to take part in the program less for its limited benefits than to show support of New Haven’s sanctuary initiative, registration needs to be quick, painless and convenient — as simple as getting a flu shot at the grocery store. The mobile ID program is a good beginning, but it should be used more extensively and choose locations that have become part of people’s daily routine: the City Seed Farm Markets, the post office, etc. It’s not enough to just be in the neighborhood.

The actions by the CWP underscore the need for broad support for the cards. DeStefano’s speech was a good start. But speech alone will not do; there must be action to show anti-immigration groups like CWP that both the city and the citizens of New Haven are fully behind the measure. The aldermen must approve the grants to fund it and DeStefano’s Office of New Haven Residents needs to make registration more accessible and appealing.

Ultimately, such actions will spur the city’s residents to show their solidarity with New Haven’s immigrant community — not with words but with cards.