Ellen Hao

In early 2007, New Haven was the first city in the United States to issue municipal ID cards as part of an attempt to make its immigrant residents safer. Among many functions, the IDs allowed immigrants to open bank accounts and stop carrying cash, which was the target of many street robberies and home invasions. The IDs also encouraged immigrants who were crime victims to come forward, because immigrants knew they would be taken more seriously once they possessed official identification.

San Francisco followed suit two years later, and then so did several other major cities—Washington, D.C. in 2014 and New York City in 2015 are among them.

Chicago now joins this national trend. The City Clerk will soon roll out municipal IDs that will be uniquely three-in-one—the IDs will triple as Chicago Public Library cards and Ventra cards. Talks about the municipal ID program began in 2015, and $1 million of the city budget was set aside to develop the program in the fall of 2016, with the Office of the City Clerk in charge of solidifying the program.

Kate LeFurgy, Chief External Relations Officer of the Office of the City Clerk, said that Chicago has not been late to issue IDs. Out of the top five largest cities by population, Chicago is the second city to issue municipal IDs, after New York. Moreover, she counted not being among the first to issue IDs as an “advantage”—instead, Chicago can learn from other cities that have already issued them. Chicago is “still on the cutting edge while still able to take best practices,” she said.

Unlike the New Haven IDs that were originally designed with immigrants in mind, Chicago’s IDs will not be catered just for undocumented immigrants, said LeFurgy, nor just for other vulnerable populations that also face identification difficulties. Chicago’s IDs will be, she said, “for all Chicagoans.”

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Information security has been one of the biggest concerns for the municipal ID program, especially because the program serves undocumented immigrants who fear that their information will fall into the hands of the federal government. According to LeFurgy, the City Clerk considered the mistakes that New York City made regarding information security when designing the Chicago IDs. New York retained the addresses and social security numbers of its municipal ID holders. After Trump’s election, the city wanted to delete this information, but two state lawmakers sued to stop the city from doing so.

In response, Chicago will not keep any records of personal information. According to LeFurgy, when a resident applies for a card, city officials will not ask for immigrant status and will personally validate the resident’s documents. (The Office of the City Clerk has yet to announce an official list of required documents, but the list will be modelled off other cities’ list, which use a point system to confirm proof of identity and residency.) The officials will then hand back all documents and print the ID on the spot, with the address printed on the ID. The city will not keep any record of the address, and will retain only the resident’s birth date and a unique identifier, all in compliance with the Illinois Records Law, LeFurgy said.

Yet Chicago’s decision to integrate the IDs with Ventra cards also raises possible concerns about information security. Chicago will be the first city to allow all residents to use their IDs for public transportation. (The closest city to do so is Washington, D.C., which allows only students to use their IDs for public transportation.) However, including this additional feature means including another party—the private Cubic Transportation Systems that operates Ventra—that will possibly have access to data about the municipal IDs.

According to LeFurgy, the inclusion of Ventra will not affect information security. The City Clerk will buy blank Ventra cards from Cubic, so Cubic will not know which Ventra cards also serve as municipal IDs. Additionally, LeFurgy said, the Ventra feature is optional. If residents choose to not use their IDs for public transportation, they do not have to register for Ventra accounts, and the Ventra feature will not be activated.

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Inclusion of different vulnerable groups

Chicago has also considered vulnerable populations other than undocumented immigrants when designing its ID program. The two cities at the forefront of the municipal ID program, New Haven and San Francisco, initially designed their IDs with undocumented immigrants in mind, a feature the City Clerk took note of. Since the program’s inception, the office talked to numerous community organizations that represent different vulnerable populations.

Not unexpectedly, the City Clerk has worked in depth with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), Illinois’ largest multi-ethnic immigrant advocacy organization, while developing the program. But the ICIRR is just one of the many organizations that the City Clerk collaborated with. As Fred Tsao, Senior Policy Counsel at ICIRR, acknowledged, Chicago’s municipal ID is “not just meant to be a card for immigrants.”

One such organization supporting a different vulnerable group is Access Living, a center that provides legal support and advocacy for people with disabilities. People with disabilities, especially those in nursing homes, face difficulties regarding identification, explains Michelle Garcia, Latino Community Organizer at Access Living. When people enter a nursing home, the home takes away all of their documentation (IDs, birth certificate, etc.), and then often loses these documents. They are then no longer able to seek medical or housing services outside the nursing home, Garcia said—they are “basically stripped of [their] identity.”

Access Living has brought up this specific difficulty in talks with the City Clerk, according to Garcia. Now, Access Living is helping to develop a mechanism that ensures that individuals cannot be stripped of their municipal ID when entering nursing homes.

The City Clerk has also worked with the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois (TJLP), a collective organization of legal and social workers that provides free legal support to transgender and gender-nonconforming people. According to Tanvi Sheth, Project Attorney and Board Member at TJLP, this support includes a free name-change clinic to help change names on IDs. TJLP, therefore, “knows firsthand how something as simple as an ID can’t be taken for granted,” said Sheth. If people want to change the gender marker on their Illinois state ID, they have to provide a letter from a healthcare professional, which many people do not have access to due to financial reasons. Such requirements for changing the gender marker, Sheth said, “basically erases us [the transgender community].”

TJLP has worked with the City Clerk to ensure that residents will be able to change their gender marker on the municipal ID, and that the ID will offer the option of a third gender marker.

These organizations have found working with the City Clerk on the municipal ID program to be a positive experience. Garcia said that the City Clerk “has been really responsive, really open” to Access Living’s input. The City Clerk “asked us for different [pharmaceutical and medical equipment] vendors to be on board with the card,” said Garcia, so the vendors can provide discounts to ID holders. By asking Access Living, which is locally based, about vendors, the City Clerk ensures that ID holders will benefit from the card at the local level.

Discussions with the City Clerk have sparked ideas for the Access Living staff as well. “When she [the City Clerk] talked about attaching Ventra, our [Access Living’s] light came on about including Para transit and accessible cabs,” Garcia said.

Sheth of TJLP similarly said that the City Clerk has “just been responsive to the needs of the community.” TJLP conducted an extensive survey across different communities to ask what kinds of documents transgender people have access to. The City Clerk’s office then used the survey results to help build the list of required documents. Sheth said he could not specify what particular documents the City Clerk added after considering the survey, because the final list has not been announced. His overall opinion was firm, however: “It has been a very inclusive and two-sided process.”

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Benefits for all Chicagoans

In addition to helping vulnerable populations acquire proper identification, the card aims to benefit all Chicago residents. According to LeFurgy, Chicago has looked at how Detroit partnered with small businesses and how New York partnered with cultural institutions to provide discounts to ID holders. Chicago is in the process of including both types of benefits.

“I can’t stress this enough,” said LeFurgy, “that the municipal ID program is for all Chicagoans…. We don’t want it to be a stigma card.”

The community organizations that worked with the City Clerk agree. “The card is meant to meet the needs to these communities, but also to appeal more broadly,”  Tsao from ICIRR said.

Garcia from Access Living conveyed a similar sentiment. During an earlier budget hearing, some aldermen argued against allocating money to the ID program because they claimed the IDs would only aid undocumented immigrants. Garcia testified on behalf of the program: “This is a program for everybody, not just for one particular community.”

“[It would be] short-sighted to consider that this municipal ID program is meant to benefit some one particular community,” Sheth said. “The ultimate goal is: people who live in the city are able to just engage in public life.”

“There is no use in dividing our own city,” he added.

Until more detailed announcements about the program come, there’s little to do to evaluate the program as it currently stands other than to heed the experiences of the program’s collaborating organizations. The City Clerk will announce the official vendor of the IDs in the coming weeks, LeFurgy said, and also aims to pilot the ID program before the end of the year. With just a month to go until that hopeful deadline, whether a municipal ID program can and should securely serve all the city’s residents—especially its most vulnerable—remains to be seen.

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1 Comment

  1. Having the card act as both a library and Ventra card is pretty smart. It really does make it a no-brainer for me just as a convenience to not carry both around.

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