Municipal IDs as a Route to Public Safety and Well-Being for Immigrants

On a hot Wednesday evening in the bare bones community room of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, I gather with a small group of immigrant activists, community organizers, and their non-immigrant allies/accomplices as part of a campaign to establish a municipal ID program. I come to the campaign table as an applied anthropologist who has researched and written about the physical and mental health impacts of undocumented status in Tucson’s Mexican immigrant community. I found that the lack of valid Arizona state ID carries numerous direct health threats such as the inability to report crimes to or request assistance from the police, secure rental contracts, and access municipal health centers, which expose immigrants to violence, threats, abuse, lack of shelter, and untreated medical conditions. Less obvious but no less lethal are the associated indirect health threats such as limiting entry into city services and programs, safe banking practices, recreational opportunities, and other important elements of local residency.

Taken in concert, these are the factors that reduce people to what Giorgio Agamben coined as “bare life”—that liminal space in which one is technically free but stripped of the layers and contours of political, civil, and human rights. In my own research I examined the connections that immigrants make between these conditions and feelings of fear, loneliness, and social isolation, emotional experiences that have been documented to permanently alter our DNA and carry grave health consequences. I argue that such emotional damage may play an important and understudied role in the pervasive health declines so widely reported in the Mexican immigrant community.

Municipal IDs offer a way for people to participate more fully in civic life. Melo Dominguez

But I also come to this campaign as the partner of a Mexican immigrant, as someone who sees with painful intimacy the acts of structural violence that compromise immigrants’ ability to take part in community and civic life. Since immigration status is a federal designation over which cities have zero authority, a municipal ID card cannot change the fact that my family’s weekend camping trips are rendered substantially less relaxing by the prospect of Border Patrol stops en route to home. But municipal IDs could ease my partner’s ability to carry out crucial daily tasks like renting construction equipment, cashing checks, or retrieving a Fedex package. They might also increase his, and therefore our, regional engagement by serving to afford him access to entertainment venues, qualify him for locals-only discounts at area businesses, and help him to take out a fishing license.

The ID’s possibilities for enhancing participation in localized environments have been duly noted on a national scale. As promises of comprehensive federal immigration reform gave way to exclusionary federal and state level legislation in the early 2000s, many cities have turned to municipal ID programs as an alternative route towards what de Graauw (2014) terms “local bureaucratic membership.” The 2005 passage of the Real ID Act further cemented this need by instituting legal citizenship status as a prerequisite for state level ID cards or licenses. While 12 states and Washington, DC have passed laws allowing undocumented people to obtain driver’s licenses, the cards all read that they are not valid for ID purposes. Just two years after the passage of the Real ID Act, the municipal ID movement was born in New Haven, Connecticut following a spate of immigration raids. It has since spread to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, Hartford, Washington DC, and New York City, amongst other cities.

In Tucson, the ID movement began several years ago following the 2010 passage of AZ State Bill 1070. SB 1070 is an anti-immigrant measure that criminalizes lack of identification and institutes a “show your papers” clause requiring police to determine an individual’s immigration status during every stop, detention, or arrest. On Tucson’s southside, where two police jurisdictions, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, Border Patrol, and ICE perform a dense patchwork of patrol, SB 1070 bred deep fear and decimated participation in health clinics, churches, service organizations, city programs, recreational leagues, and other facets of public life. Despite ensuing legal challenges to SB 1070 and policy changes in the local police department as well as symbolic measures such as naming Tucson an “Immigrant Welcoming City” and instituting a “We Reject Racism” campaign, routine traffic stops can still rapidly hurdle people into immigration detention and even deportation.

I believe that the potential of municipal ID programs to increase inclusion and access to local residency warrants greater study, particularly by anthropologists.
The Todo Tucson City ID movement seeks to replicate what has occurred in other cities—such as New Haven, Chicago, Oakland, and New York City—where police departments have instituted agreements to accept municipal IDs. Some cities are reporting improved trust between police and immigrant communities, and even reductions in crime rates. In Tucson, a collaborative relationship with police regarding the ID would enable immigrant residents to more safely cooperate with law enforcement to report crimes and seek help, effectively improving public safety for the entire community. It could also go a long way toward giving immigrants a sense of safety, inclusion, and well-being. In short, the municipal ID card would be a means for city of Tucson to hold itself accountable for putting its ideals of inclusivity into practice, offering a practical route toward repairing the torn fabric of local civil society.

I believe that the potential of municipal ID programs to increase inclusion and access to local residency warrants greater study, particularly by anthropologists. While scholars have been exploring the concept of sanctuary and the role of cities in promoting urban citizenship, surprisingly little has been done on the potential for municipal IDs to intersect with social inclusion. Municipalities considering an ID program could benefit greatly from scholarly investigation into the how municipal IDs alter daily life for immigrants and other affected city residents such as the prison re-entry community, homeless individuals, survivors of domestic abuse, LGBTQ individuals, and the youth and elderly. Such ethnographic studies should highlight the ID’s impact on concrete areas of cardholder’s lives, such as securing housing, accessing city services, conducting banking, and interacting with police, public school districts, and other governmental agencies. But they should also probe the ID’s impact on more subjective experiences, such as level of perceived safety, participation in civic activities, and inclusion in local society.

Back in the church meeting room, the mood lifts when a campaign member brings out his guitar and plays a song he wrote about the ID movement. He sings: “We will come from the shadows into the light of day, we will come from the shadows with our identity,” and we all hope his words will prove prophetic. Given the current direction of exclusionary and punitive federal politics around immigration, cities will face an increasing burden to promote and protect the health and well-being of all their residents.

Rebecca Crocker is a sociocultural and applied anthropologist (PhD University of Arizona 2016). Her work focuses on emotional trauma and health declines in the Mexican immigrant community and issues of food security in the Arizona borderlands. She works for the UA Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology and the Southwest Folklife Alliance.​ She can be reached at [email protected].

Cite as: Crocker, Rebecca. 2017. “Municipal IDs as a Route to Public Safety and Well-Being for Immigrants.” Anthropology News website, October 3, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.595

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