LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – Los Angeles officials are considering a plan to turn the library card into a form of identification that the city’s large illegal immigrant population could use to open bank accounts and access an array of city services.
The City Council unanimously voted recently to consider the proposal, which would have Los Angeles join the growing number of cities across the nation that offer various forms of identification to undocumented workers and others who cannot get driver’s licenses because of their immigration status.
Though L.A.’s plan would not be as sweeping as those adopted by cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond, it would be a major step in serving the estimated 300,000 residents who don’t have bank accounts or debit cards.
The ID card would include a user’s name, address and a photograph, and would be issued through the city’s libraries. The city would partner with a private vendor to set up bank accounts for those who want to use the library ID as a debit card. Banks generally require official identification to open an account.
But anyone able to provide proof of L.A. residency would be eligible for the library card, said Councilman Richard Alarcon, who proposed the concept. Banking services would include direct deposit, international and domestic money transfers and the debiting.
Alarcon said that in his Northeast Valley district, some immigrants who don’t use banks end up being gouged by payday lenders or robbed if they keep large sums of cash on hand.
“They can be scammed and taken advantage of,” Alarcon said. “This will help end that.”
The cards would not be a substitute for driver’s licenses and would not provide any protection from deportation by federal immigration authorities. And they would come with a cost. Applicants would pay a fee, around $15 to $20, for the card, and then would be able to deposit and withdraw money through a network of ATMs at local grocery stores and shopping malls. There could also be a monthly fee of up to $2.99.
The plan is likely to face opposition, as it has in other cities. Ira Mehlman, communications director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said ID cards can easily be exploited by terrorists and criminals and encourage illegal immigration.
“Cities should not be in the business of making it easier for people to violate federal law even if they don’t pose a security risk,” he said.
L.A.’s proposed card would not go as far as programs in other cities.
San Francisco’s City ID card, for example, is accepted as a form of identification by most city banks, airlines and local businesses. The San Francisco card also lists a user’s medical conditions and an emergency contact, said Karen Hong Yee, director of the San Francisco County clerk’s office.
Oakland is contracting with SF Global, an L.A.-based company that operates prepaid banking systems.
The cards will cost $15 and may include a monthly fee of $1.99, said Arturo Sanchez, a deputy city administrator. The contract pays for itself, he said. With a population of 400,000, Oakland sees its ID card as a way of helping undocumented immigrants in dealing with police, not just banks, Sanchez said.
None have linked their cards to a city’s library system. But Alarcon said linking the cards to L.A.’s library system would help promote “financial literacy” among immigrants.
“We test students all the time on academic ability,” he said. “But we don’t determine if they are capable of handling their financial affairs. The foreclosure crisis demonstrated that there are a lot of people who are not.”
A New York City councilman in 2007 proposed an ID card for city residents regardless of status. But the proposal never got a committee hearing and died from lack of support. City ID cards are not the only way for illegal immigrants to get bank accounts. Some banks accept foreign government-issued identification such as the Mexican Matricular Consular to open accounts for immigrants regardless of their legal status. But immigrants often are hesitant to take that step, instead turning to payday lenders and check-cashing outlets.
A 2010 Pew Health Group report estimated that 300,000 people in Los Angeles don’t have a bank account. Nearly 70% are foreign born, earn between $10,000 and $15,000 a year and have been in the United States, on average, about 14 years.
Gustavo Martin, 32, a Pacoima mechanic, said he would be interested. On payday, he goes to Bronco Check Cashing in Pacoima, its bright-yellow, hand-painted sign drawing neighborhood workers who like its convenience. He pays $5.50 in fees to cash his $317 weekly salary, he said.
“It’s safe, then OK,” he said, his faded jeans smeared with grease. Then he smiled broadly: “My son likes ‘Harry Potter.'”