Posted by: macjohns | August 12, 2011

Multicultural, Multi-issue Organizing Around a City I.D. Card in Oakland


Nearly three years ago, as a Policy Analyst for the Oakland City Council, I was asked to conduct research on a potential Oakland City I.D. Card Ordinance. At the time, a program in New Haven, Connecticut had already been started with the help of grant funding and the completion of a report entitled “A City to Model: Six Proposals for Protecting Public Safety and Improving Relationships between Immigrant Communities and the City of New Haven”. The report was produced by three entities:  Junta for Progressive Action, Unidad Latina en Accion, and Yale Law School’s Community Lawyering Clinic (CLC).

The report was prepared in March of 2005 for the City of New Haven to recommend strategies that could improve public safety and civility in the context of a rapidly growing Latino immigrant population; both documented and undocumented. At the time Latinos  accounted for 50.3% of all Fair Haven (within New Haven) residents and they presented with special needs that compromised their rights to participation and protection. The recommendations were an attempt to incorporate their needs into the city’s agenda in order to give immigrants full access to the city.

Public safety provided a necessary boost of legitimacy for the program and served as a way framing the argument for the card to the documented population. Simply put, threats to the safety of immigrant communities were threats to the larger social order as well. For instance, there was a high rate of home burglary and robbery of immigrants  because immigrants could not open bank accounts and were known to  carry cash. Disproportionate rates of theft and property crimes  never made it into police reports and crime tracking because of undocumented immigrants’ inability to obtain legitimate identification for the police. Add to this the fact that Latino immigrants were also worried about the underpayment or nonpayment of wages in working with certain employers. These conditions are thought to promote the existence of street gangs for protection,  require unsustainable levels of police involvement in gang and drug enforcement, reduce public safety for all citizens as criminals become bolder, and keep a large segment of the population outside of the local economy and tax base.

All of the negative consequences of not having valid identification could be mitigated by having a city issue identification cards for its inhabitants. New Haven also partnered with Yale to make these cards serve as student identification cards, and then partnered with merchants in order to incentivize the use of the cards with discounts at local retailers (which encouraged shopping at local businesses). The effect was a city I.D. card that would protect the undocumented without stigmatizing them as the sole users of the card. Public support of the card, added to the creativity of its developers soon meant that other features would be added. Today, the card also operates as a debit card and can be used to pay parking meters and to access city events and services.



Oakland became the second city in the Nation to actually legislate this program into existence on June 2nd, 2009. It followed on the heels of San Francisco, California. Based on the policy research I had been conducting  with the Municipal Identification Card Coalition. San Francisco and Oakland might have legislated them at the same time, however Oakland decided to wait for the outcome of lawsuits filed by the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), an anti-immigrant organization based in Washington, DC. The first suit alleged that the issuance of these identification cards amounted to a misappropriation of funds by the City of San Francisco (the city paid over $1 million for the machine that would ultimately print these cards), and the second suit was based on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). It alleged that these cards alongside San Francisco’s designation as a “Sanctuary City” would encourage an unprecedented invasion of undocumented immigrants who would compromise the air and water quality and wreak other havoc on the environment. In January of 2009, the suits against San Francisco were thrown out and Oakland was emboldened to begin its process of legislation.

The original coalition was comprised of members of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), the Spanish Speaking Citizens Foundation (SSCF), and a multi-ethnic group promoting ACORNs or (Alternative Currency for Oakland Residents and Neighbors). Cohesion within the group was, perhaps, strongest in the beginning when the idea was in the planning stage. This dynamic was apparent because this is long before the coalition had been energized by San Francisco’s passage of the ordinance and New Haven had not yet expanded its program to include a financial component. This phase was marked by high levels of research to determine whether or not a program like this could work given California State law and the availability of organizations willing to fund such a pilot project in Oakland.

Also at this time, African-American involvement was loose; representatives attended meetings more as a show of solidarity than for any strategic involvement. It was only after our city council office began to work collaboratively with financial institutions and the City of New Haven on the incorporation of a financial component that African-American involvement began to increase. This heightened involvement was mostly due to the fact that parasitic financial institutions dominated the poorer areas of Oakland and African-Americans were some of their primary victims.

Economic and public safety improvement data from New Haven, as well as expanding the program to include African-Americans and other stigmatized groups were critical in order to maintain our office’s involvement in the process. At this time in 2009, the economic downturn was becoming a major consideration in Oakland’s political economy and the city could ill-afford to be thought of as spending large sums of money in order to “privilege” undocumented immigrants.

The coalition also began to grow in early 2009  to include homeless activists from the Homeless Action Center and Transgender Activists from various organizations in the East Bay and San Francisco. Their chief concerns were: an I.D. more affordable than a California I.D. that could be used as a debit card, and an identification that either removed gender or allowed a person to self-declare their gender-respectively. It was also around this time that the judgement in the lawsuit against San Francisco was handed down in favor of the San Francisco. Attention poured not only on San Francisco but on Oakland as well. Suddenly the coalition added more Latino and African Americans that had not necessarily been affiliated with the organizations previously mentioned; so too was another city council office added to the coalition, that of Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente. At this time, more work was also done to get city agencies on board to accept the card (including police), and to involve the local community college district and local merchants to expand the program’s scope.



The sudden viability of such a project coupled with anti-immigrant rhetoric that had become more pronounced during the recession began to erode the racial inclusion that had begun to characterize the coalition, unfortunately. For instance, DUI checkpoints were believed to be targeting Latino enclaves in Oakland (the Fruitvale District) and when drivers could not produce identification, they were taken to jail where they would inevitably encounter Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The politically unpalatable external factor of ICE raids of Latino communities and spatially concentrated DUI checkpoints served as a powerful external factor that began to unite Latinos across organization and nationality to push for a card that could be quickly legislated and produced. With this motivation, the majority of the Latinos involved argued to jettison the idea of a financial component as its intricacies would protract the process. In response, African-Americans pushed ever-harder for the financial component and argued that they would not let their efforts and and needs be marginalized in order to respond to the immediate needs of undocumented immigrants. Both groups stood to benefit from the legislation but the political process threatened a stalemate. Obviously, there were Latinos who pushed for the financial component and there were African-Americans who sympathized with the plight of undocumented people who literally lived in fear of arrest and deportation.   As the original Policy Analyst working on the project, I sided with those who pushed for a financial component and also worked with the police to end some of the most egregious acts of profiling identified by advocates for the undocumented. I sided with the financial component faction not only because I am an African-American and know very well the forms of financial abuse targeted at both of our communities, but also because the financial component created the consensus that would ultimately get the ordinance passed. Without strong African-American involvement in a city that is roughly 22% Latino coupled with demonstrably less involvement of other immigrant groups, this card could easily be labeled as an exorbitantly-priced “city handout” to “illegal immigrants”. An I.D. card machine priced at about $1 million was not practical nor fiscally possible in the first half of 2009, it is only less possible today.



As part of the ordinance, Oakland’s program must be cost-covering. The only method, thought to make this program cost-covering while still assuring that the cards will be reasonably priced (as little as $5), is to work with a financial services company that could make the cards function also as debit cards or prepaid credit cards; much like New Haven’s program. After putting out an RFP, the Oakland City Council selected a financial services vendor. The program appears to be stalled, however, by the fact that the city appears to be requiring a sort of “report card” for this vendor; something to prove that the vendor has the financial resources and industry reputation to cover “fraud, theft market downturns and other problems that could jeopardize cardholder funds”. The City believes that to accomplish this, it would have to hire a consultant at a cost of $5-10 thousand.

There are, however, always ways to circumvent the red tape that continues to bedraggle any prospects for the actual issuance of these identification cards. That tape was cut several times before the ordinance was even drafted and had been cut by activists and policy makers alike in both New Haven and San Francisco. As an activist who has spent the past 11 years working for progressive causes in both Northern and Southern California, I find my interests drawn back into this 3-year scuffle to establish this program in Oakland. The fight begins, however, in turning this into a national phenomenon.

If you are interested in learning more, please visit the following websites:


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