Funding, Structure for Universal ID Cards in NYC Still Unclear

Similar programs elsewhere suggest costs could run into millions annually
February 13, 2014 Updated: February 13, 2014

NEW YORK—In his State of the City Address Monday, Mayor de Blasio laid out an ambitious plan to offer municipal ID cards to any New York City resident by the end of this year, regardless of their immigration status. But he provided no details about the complex initiative or how it will be funded.

The project is aimed at bringing an estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants in the city out of the shadows, allowing them to open bank accounts, check out library books, and see a doctor. Though the cost of the program has not yet been determined, similar programs in other cities suggest it could cost millions to operate on annual basis.

The mayor’s office has not released any details of the program but said it plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks. In an emailed statement, a representative said there would be a fee for the card, which could either cover or defray the cost to the city. It also confirmed the city would be administering the program, unlike some cities, which have gone through third parties.

According to City Council member Carlos Menchaca, the council is planning on holding community hearings over the next month to get input on how the program should be structured.

When asked if there were any firm plans on how it will be funded, he threw the ball into de Blasio’s court.

“The mayor put this in the State of the City and he’s going to make sure this is a fully funded program,” Menchaca said.

When the city of San Francisco rolled out its municipal ID program in 2009, the city’s upfront costs were about $800,000. It now has a yearly operating cost of $200,000 for a city with over 825,000 residents. Given the costs in San Francisco, the cost for New York with its over 8 million residents could run into millions.

The San Francisco City ID card is issued through the city clerk’s office and has a fee of $15 for adults and $5 for the elderly, children, and those with a low income. Similar to New York, San Francisco has an estimated 536,000 undocumented immigrants.

The challenge is to make the city ID cards appealing to more than just immigrants. If the cards are not widely used, they could become a symbol of undocumented status. To combat this, some cities are combining cards with prepaid debit cards, linking them with coupons, and public transportation cards.

A city ID could also help the New York’s homeless people, former inmates, and those with mental illness, if the city decides to accept less legitimate forms of paperwork as proof of residence and identity. The challenge then is to get institutions to accept it as a legitimate form of identification.

While the federal government has upped the number of deportations in the last few years, some mayors are taking measures to include undocumented workers who contribute to the city’s economy. If New York City offers municipal IDs it would join the ranks of a handful of other “sanctuary cities” like Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New Haven, Conn., and Trenton, N.J.

Holly Kellum is a special correspondent in New York.

Follow Holly on Twitter: @HollyGailK