Carmen Barbosa says she has felt invisible since coming to the United States about eight years ago.
Speaking through an interpreter, the diminutive Costa Rican immigrant explained that she lacked identification, which has made it difficult to interact with the larger community.
“Everywhere you go you need an ID,” she said on a recent Saturday afternoon in the offices of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund
in Trenton. “I get rejected a lot, even at the hospital. I went in for an emergency and I didn’t have an ID to show.”
Barbosa was waiting in a small upstairs office with several other community members to obtain something she has been missing since emigrating from Costa Rica – an identification card recognized by local authorities. The Community Identification Card issued by LALDEF is recognized by the Mercer County sheriff and prosecutor and about a half-dozen police departments.
“I’ve been waiting for this day,” Barbosa says, when she is handed her ID. “I am so happy.”
The cards, which have started to gain traction around the state, are recognized by the police and accepted as legal identification by local banks, healthcare providers, landlords and others that require proof of identification before doing business.
Law enforcement officials say the cards show a level of support and commitment by police to the undocumented community, which opens the lines of communication and encourages the immigrant community to trust police and report crimes in their neighborhoods.
Critics of the cards, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and its affiliated New Jersey groups, say the cards represent local interference into federal immigration policy. The cards make it easier for those in the country illegally to stay, undisturbed, while forcing legal citizens to bear the costs in higher taxes and competition for jobs.
The Mercer County region is one of three areas in the state in which advocacy groups are issuing cards in conjunction with local police. Asbury Park was the first to do so in 2008 and CASA Freehold, an immigrant rights group in Freehold, began issuing a “membership ID” in the fall of 2012. The Freehold card is modeled on the Mercer County card and functions in the same manner.
In Plainfield, Angels for Action, an education and advocacy group, plans to start issuing cards within a month or so. Carmen Salavarrieta, a board member of the group, said city officials — notably the mayor and police chief — are on board and that they plan to visit the Trenton program to observe and receive some training before they begin.
“There is a cost to it,” to buying the ID machines and the computer software, she said. “We want to make sure everything is set up.”
Advocates for Latinos — both documented and undocumented — say the cards are not a perfect solution, but they provide a sense of identity to a population that has been forced to live in the shadows.
“I’m not particularly delighted that there are so many people who need this card,” said Maria Juega, LALDEF’s executive director. “It is not a good sign that there is such a large disenfranchised population.”
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for FAIR, said efforts like those in Mercer County amount to “aiding and abetting the people who are avoiding immigration laws.” The governments of municipalities like Trenton and Princeton might not agree with federal immigration laws, but “it doesn’t give them the right to impede federal immigration law by making it easier for people to reside in the country illegally.”
Beyond that, Mehlman said, there is a cost to easing access to services. That cost is born by “law-abiding people who are looking for work” and competing with illegal immigrants, or taxpayers forced to pay for the undocumented children to go to school.”
“They are making it easier for people to remain in the country illegally, and they are imposing a burden on the taxpayers in those communities,” he said.
But Juega disagrees.
“The fact is there is a large group of very marginalized residents in our community that experience significant barriers to accessing necessary services, like healthcare and food security, because they lack a way to identify themselves or show themselves as a member of the community,” she said.
The cards, she says, help residents of the communities in which they are distributed by providing them with identification that is accepted by most police departments, healthcare facilities, and banks and businesses. But the need for the cards points out flaws in both federal and state law. Only two states allow undocumented residents to get driver’s licenses, she said, and most states do not offer access to identification to the undocumented population.
Six Points of Identification
In New Jersey, the state Motor Vehicle Commission can issue state identification cards, but the requirements are just as stringent as they are for obtaining a driver’s license and preclude issuance to undocumented immigrants. Applicants must provide “six points” of identification — which must include a birth certificate, passport, current driver’s license, green card, or other primary ID, along with proof of residency and documents that show name changes, if any.
Such strict requirements mean that “this marginal population, which is working and living in the community, does not have a way to prove who they are,” Juega said.
“We cannot deny people their existence,” Juega said. “We may have certain requirements and certain ways to verify information, but you cannot deny a person the right to exist. That is really what you are doing when you are denying them this little plastic card.”
Salavarrieta said the goal must be to grant driver’s licenses to the undocumented, which would mean safer roads and a more productive work force. A driver’s license would provide a more stable way to get back and forth from work and force immigrant drivers to abide by licensing and insurance requirements.
Legislation has been introduced in the Assembly (A-3286) — sponsored by Democratic Assembly members Reed Gusciora (Mercer), Marlene Caride (Bergen), L. Grace Spencer (Essex), Ruben Ramos (Hudson), and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (Essex) — that would grant undocumented immigrants who qualify for federal deferred-deportation action to obtain one-year “driving privilege access cards” that would allow them to drive in the state.
“Granting licenses to everybody even the undocumented would be the best thing for New Jersey,” Salavarrieta said. “It would be the best thing for economy and would give everybody an identification if they issued a license. But for now, we have these identification cards.”
Juega said the Mercer IDs, which started in Trenton in 2009 and then spread to Princeton in 2010 and then the rest of the county, were modeled on Asbury Park’s program. At the time, advocates for immigrants and the police were looking for ways to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.
An Incident in Asbury Park
Asbury Park kicked off its card program in 2008 after police there were unable to solve the murder of a Mexican immigrant, Cesar Torralba, the previous Christmas Eve.
According to a story in The Monitor, the newspaper of the Trenton Roman Catholic Diocese, Torralba was slain during a robbery and few in the immigrant community were willing to step forward with information.
The murder occurred during a wave of muggings targeting Latinos, and advocates said that many “victims hesitated to report the crimes against them not only because of undocumented status but because they were unable to communicate with police and emergency workers,” The Monitor reported.
That led to the creation of the Asbury Park identification cards, which are distributed by the Latino Network advocacy group, and eventually to cards in Trenton, Princeton, Freehold, and soon Plainfield.
Juega says the cards help provide better communication between Spanish-speaking residents and emergency-service providers, and give local immigrants the kind of identification they need to survive in the community.
“The police [in Trenton] were very supportive,” she said. “The minute they heard about it, they jumped on it. They were experiencing the same mistrust among many in the immigrant community [as in Asbury Park] and they felt it would improve relations.”
The cards, she said, send a message to the undocumented community that the police are willing to work with them and that they can come forward when they are victims or witnesses of crime without fearing that their status will become an issue.
Pedro Medina, a Mercer County undersheriff, was the public information officer for the Trenton Police Department in 2009. He says the program made sense on a lot of levels.
“For [the Trenton police], it was good because it builds trust and confidence within the immigrant population,” said Medina, who wanted to make it clear he was only speaking as a retired police officer.
“A victim is a victim,” he said. “We would try to tell them that, but there was a lot of mistrust . . .
He said that, at least at the beginning, there was a change in the immigrant community.
“Sometimes perception is greater than reality. We always wanted to work with them, but the ID showed that . . . we wanted them to report crimes and that we were there for all citizens of Trenton.”
The Fear Factor
This shift in attitude, said Rita Dentino, director of CASA Freehold, is one of the reasons her organization was interested in bringing the ID cards to Freehold.
“We want to live in a society that is safe, and we want to be able to call the police and to call for help and feel that I am not putting myself in danger,” she said. “We want to do everything to keep ourselves and everyone else safe, but if I am fearful of calling then that is not good.”
She said there was a situation with a member in which someone tried to break into the apartment of a single young woman and she was afraid to call the police. She said the women and her family – which also lived in the community — were afraid to call.
“In this case, one family member had a New Jersey driver’s license and a work visa — good documents — but they were afraid for the rest of the family.”
Estuardo Arriola, a Trenton businessman and former LALDEF board member, said the issue comes down to one essential thing: People need to have identification.
“You need to prove your identity with the authorities,” he said. “You need to have IDs to cash checks, to rent a house. In the emergency room you need an ID.”
Mildred Sanchez agreed. Sanchez was born in the Bronx and moved to Trenton five years ago. She was getting her ID at LALDEF on a February Saturday because “you never know when you’ll need an ID.”
A steady stream of people come into the LALDEF offices, where four volunteers are working this Saturday. They check documents — passports, generally, and utility bills or leases that prove residency — then collect the $10 fee and produce the ID. LALDEF has issued about 5,000 cards, a third of which are renewals. Most speak Spanish, but there is a growing segment of cardholders who are American citizens like Sanchez, who view the IDs as necessary and wanted to act in solidarity with friends and families.
“I am an ID person,” she said, but more importantly she wants to show her family — some of whom are undocumented — how easy it was to get one. “The are entitled to have something. They have ID from the Dominican Republic, a passport, but they don’t want to lose it. This gives them another way of having identification.”
Juega says the applicant base is becoming diversified, and now includes low-income seniors, teens without driver’s licenses, and others.
“Regular folks are getting it, too,” she said. “Folks who have all their documents and no particular need for it are getting it as a sign of solidarity with those who don’t have access to ID, and they are using it purposely to gain recognition for the cards in the community.”
Juega said she’d like to see the program branch out, but LALDEF is a small organization. Dentino of CASA Freehold and Salavarrieta of Angels for Action said the same thing.
“This requires the kind of community-building effort that grassroots organizations need to do,” Juega said. “We started just in Trenton. When you can show a track record that it is working and nothing bad is happening then you can take it elsewhere.
“We don’t have the resources to go beyond our geographic area,” she added. “We are willing to share our experience with any agencies that want to replicate the model, but our hope is that we are put out of business in a couple of years by a good set of immigration changes that will open up access for all immigrants.”