New York City’s Municipal ID Program Offers Model For Circumventing Immigration Inertia (October 22, 2014)


I have a close friend who’s more like a little sister. We both live and work in Chicago, the third most populous city in the United States. In the Windy City, home to almost three million people, the shifting demographics of the nation have already become a new normal. As of the 2010 Census, just 45 percent of Chicago’s residents self-identify as exclusively Caucasian. Of the remaining ethnic categories, African Americans, and those of Hispanic or Latino descent, represent the largest groups.

I highlight these numbers in order to drive home the resigned frustration associated with incidents like the following. My friend, a beautiful woman of mixed racial heritage (half Caucasian, half Haitian Creole), works in a customer-facing position with a large banking chain. She’s also possessed of far more patience than most, which I suppose is a major driver of her professional success. She recounted the following dialogue between herself and a client earlier this week:

Friend (to Customer): Wow. There are a lot of people in our system with the same name as you.

Customer: Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t know this since you’re not an American, but…

Friend: How am I not American?

Customer: Because you’re of Latin descent.

Friend: I’m not. But I’m still confused as to why I wouldn’t be American.

Chicago has many flaws as an urban community, but on the whole, its citizenry skews liberal. It is not a Tea Party stronghold and for the most part, the city eludes the sort of redneck militia reputation that is often pinned on the Midwest. Yet the encounter described above is far from rare. My pal considered herself lucky that the “gentleman” assumed her immigration (of course she was born locally) is legal. This is what counts for a good encounter with the presumptive, threatened white male.

This trying anecdote was front in center in my thoughts as I read “Membership’s Perks, for Immigrants, Too” from The New York Times Editorial Board this week. Though the piece reports on The Big Apple’s introduction of a citywide identity card that “will tell everybody that its owner is a bona fide New Yorker,” the sting of truth is felt in the short opinion’s last paragraph:

“The longer it takes for Congress to act on immigration reform, the more it will fall to cities and towns to keep America’s welcoming spirit alive. Municipal IDs are signs of confidence in the benefits of integration — the belief that when strangers rub shoulders, when outsiders are welcomed and absorbed, the community flourishes.”

There’s an unwritten rule that neither side of the political aisle wants to discuss real issues in the run-up to an election. And Congress is certainly not to going to make any moves. With the midterms less than two weeks away, it seems Ebola finger pointing and Obama repudiation is as deep as any candidate is going to get. It was midsummer, during the height of the Central American child migrant border surge, that we last had any serious discussion about our broken immigration system.

So let’s be grateful to New York City for keeping this mess in the headlines, for trying to find real ways to work around the inertia on Capitol Hill to bring people together, even if it takes a little self-interested carrot dangling. That’s the American way! Per the editorial:

“The city has designed the card to include side benefits, like free admission or discounts at 33 cultural institutions, including the Bronx Zoo, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Those perks are meant to entice nonimmigrant New Yorkers to sign up, too.”

It won’t be much longer at all until Chicago’s bank customers, such as the one who plagued my friend, will be forced to keep their ignorant observations to themselves. The judgment of one’s Americanness based on skin color is already antiquated, and with a little more time, social norms will act as a further barrier. The presumptive, threatened white male’s verbal aggression is in the death throes in the Second City. The sensation is palpable – and one of the reasons we can share these stories with something approaching pity and humor.

But for the millions of undocumented workers forced to remain on the fringes in cities and towns across the country, our nation’s failure to act is no laughing matter. Let’s not wait until after the midterms to renew calls to action. It’s well beyond time to overhaul a system that benefits from underpaid labor while sneering at the hardworking people who provide it. And if Congress won’t budge, I hope my city and many others will consider following New York’s lead.


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