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ID card for illegal immigrants likely to generate sparks on L.A. panel

October 16, 2012 |  9:40 am

There could be some spirited debate Tuesday morning as a committee of the Los Angeles City Council considers a controversial plan backed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for a city photo-identification card that would help immigrants get access to banking services.

The committee's review is the first step in a process to create the card system.

Critics said Villaraigosa's proposal is the latest indication that Los Angeles leaders are taking an increasingly supportive view of undocumented immigrants as they encourage them to join in the city's civic life.

"It is clearly an accommodation," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group critical of illegal immigration. "Los Angeles is making it easier for people who have violated federal immigration laws to live in the city."

But backers said the mayor is doing the right thing, pointing out that the initiative could reduce crime because fewer people would have to carry cash.

The idea for the city ID card originated in his office, the mayor said, as part of previous efforts to help immigrants open bank accounts so they wouldn't become targets of crime.

Councilman Richard Alarcon recently introduced a more limited proposal to create a new library card that could also serve as a debit card. But Villaraigosa said he wants to go further and have the city begin offering full-fledged photo IDs.

A handful of cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, issue identification cards to anyone who can prove residency, regardless of immigration status. Villaraigosa said it's time that Los Angeles — home to an estimated 4.3 million immigrants — joined them.

"It will be as strong an effort as San Francisco's," the mayor said.

Any move to add the nation's second-largest city to those making official IDs available to undocumented residents is likely to intensify the debate over the role local governments should play in dealing with illegal immigrants.

Earlier this month, L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck announced that hundreds of undocumented immigrants arrested by his officers each year in low-level crimes would no longer be turned over to federal authorities for deportation. And in February, LAPD officers were given new guidelines allowing greater discretion when deciding whether to impound cars of unlicensed drivers, including those of illegal immigrants.
City officials and other supporters of the city ID card say it's a practical attempt to balance federal immigration laws with making residents less vulnerable to crime and more accountable to their community. An official ID would make it easier for many residents to open bank accounts, obtain city services and identify themselves to law enforcement officials, they argue.

Alexandra Suh, executive director of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, said immigrant rights organizations strongly support a city ID card.

"An ID that recognizes residents as Angelenos with access to all city agencies would be a great benefit for all of us," she said. "Things like the ability to check out a library book, to access health services, to enroll our kids in school, why should this depend on immigration status?"

But even Alarcon's less ambitious library-debit card plan has met resistance. This month, the Granada Hills North Neighborhood Council voted unanimously to oppose it, said council member Sid Gold. He said the mayor's plan isn't likely to be greeted warmly either.

"The feeling was there are other ways for people who don't have documents to open bank accounts, and this is really a federal policy, not a city policy," said Gold, a psychiatrist. "The city should really focus on things important to the city, like balancing the budget, fixing the streets and the transportation-tax proposal."

Card applicants would have to meet "strict" criteria, the mayor's office said. The card, which officials say would look like a student ID, would include a photo, street address, date of birth, hair and eye color, height and weight. Law enforcement agencies could choose whether to recognize the card, and it would not substitute for a driver's license, the mayor's office said. The card would not be accepted as identification required for air travel.

The city program would be run by a vendor who would charge applicants between $10 and $20 to obtain a card, and a few dollars a month for the debit service, which would be optional, officials said. The details of how residents would obtain the cards haven't been spelled out. Thousands of poor and elderly legal residents who don't have a driver's license or other identification would benefit from the program, the mayor's office said.

In announcing the LAPD's new rules on reporting immigrants, Beck said that when undocumented residents aren't afraid to approach police officers to report crime or act as witnesses, the city's streets are safer.

But Mehlman, of the anti-illegal immigration activist group, said if Los Angeles wants to reduce problems associated with undocumented residents it should make life harder, not easier, for them, as states such as Arizona have done.

"At some point, you have to say something is wrong and that we are going to actually enforce laws."

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— Catherine Saillant

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