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City Municipal ID Cards Could Boost Immigrant Business

Crain's New York Business - July 8, 2014, by Chris Bragg - An initiative creating an identification card for New York City residents could allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts, where identification is required. That is just one way the law could boost the city's economy, according to advocates for the card, though thorny security concerns for the city remain unresolved.

Aimed at making life easier for the city's half-million undocumented immigrants, the bill to create a municipal identification card was passed by the City Council last month, and Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign it. A secondary impact could be boosting immigrants' spending and entrepreneurship, say advocates.

"The multiplier effect of the municipal ID is going to be huge because of the financial empowerment aspect," said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. "People who don't have IDs or a bank account can't participate in the financial system."

Applicants for the cards, which the city is expected to begin issuing in late 2014 or early 2015, will have to prove their identities with birth certificates or passports from any country. They will also have to prove their city residency with documents such as utility bills or pay stubs.

The cards will include a person's name, picture, address and date of birth. But questions remain whether that will be enough for banks, which have security concerns and have not yet publicly committed to accepting the IDs. For one, undocumented immigrants do not have Social Security numbers.

Mr. Choi believes these immigrants could apply for Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs), a tax-processing number for which foreign workers can apply. Banks currently have inconsistent polices on whether to accept ITINs in lieu of Social Security numbers, but Mr. Choi thinks that having the city government's full weight behind the initiative will prod the institutions to accept them.

Banks have concerns about the cards being secure enough, and fear that accounts could be used for money laundering. Whether or not banks large and small decide to accept the ID cards will likely rest on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and state Department of Financial Services giving their sign-offs, according to Brian Blake, vice president of Spring Bank, a community lender that focuses primarily on low-income and underserved neighborhoods.

"There are a lot of banks that have flexibility above the minimum requirements to open an account, and below that minimum there's no flexibility," Mr. Blake said. "We try to be as open-minded as possible, as far as the regulators allow."

Although the City Council overwhelmingly passed the bill, the measure faced opposition from the chamber's three Republican members, who cited security concerns. Republicans in Albany are set to make the cards a campaign issue in the 2014 election, saying they legitimize immigrants who are here illegally and create the potential for fraud and abuse.

Another key question is whether a broad swath of New Yorkers—not just undocumented immigrants—will apply for the municipal ID cards. Advocates say that for immigrants to avoid being stigmatized, card ownership must extend beyond those living here illegally.

To that end, the city is planning on putting benefits such as discounts to museums on the cards.

That could encourage a whole new population to take in New York's cultural institutions—including both undocumented immigrants and citizens—although the details have yet to be worked out. Cities that have passed municipal ID laws, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Haven, Conn., have employed these incentives.

Signing leases

The cards are also intended to ease holders' abilities to sign leases and give them access to government buildings, which often require identification, said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a New York-based group that released a study on the impact of similar laws around the country.

That could make it easier for entrepreneurial immigrants to deal with regulators and other gatekeepers of the area's economy.

"For immigrant-owned small businesses and vendors seeking to open and get a license, it makes a huge difference," Mr. Friedman said.