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Part Of Our Community

July 8, 2007

I've been asked repeatedly why New Haven would issue city identification cards to immigrants who present us with consular IDs and other documentation similar to that used by the U.S. Treasury Department for tax identification numbers.

This morning, some 10,000-plus undocumented residents will wake up in New Haven, a city of 128,000 people. Most of them will go to work or church. If this were September, many of those residents would be seeing their kids - many of whom were born here in America and are U.S. citizens - off to school. Some people would say that we should deal with their violation of the law - entering the United States without proper documentation - by promptly sending them back to their home countries.

But there's a problem. The federal government has encouraged them to be here. There are 12 million undocumented residents in this country. Yet every day the federal government winks at its own law because businesses need these workers.

America has always needed and been enriched by immigrant labor. But our elected federal officials lack the courage to create an immigration policy that secures our borders, has generous immigration quotas and can be enforced. The federal government continues to stall in creating a realistic immigration policy because it knows just how much it benefits from having immigrants here. This is why cities like New Haven are forced to find solutions.

Over many years now, we in New Haven, and places like us with large undocumented resident populations, have been waiting for sound immigration policies from Washington. We waited and waited until we could wait no longer. Immigrant families in our communities are growing, and businesses depend on them.

But they are also increasingly a target for crime in our community. "A walking ATM" is a common term for an undocumented resident who is carrying money or hiding it in his house because he is unlikely to have a bank account. The undocumented resident cannot open a bank account without a passport or Social Security number or other official identification. And he doesn't go to the police for fear they will turn him in to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Immigrants also are victims of landlords who pile families in apartments, creating fire and health hazards. Employers exploit undocumented workers while violating labor laws. Women won't report abuse for fear of ICE.

So about two years ago, we in New Haven began to talk with immigrants in church halls and in libraries, and with members of the clergy present to create trust. We heard about unscrupulous landlords and employers.

We talked about the importance of reporting crime to keep neighborhoods safe, and New Haven police began interacting with the community.

Some undocumented workers began signing up for legitimate tax ID numbers so they could pay taxes. City police talked about how important it was for undocumented residents to identify themselves so they could work with the police to ensure civil behavior on our streets. What better way to do that than with documentation that identified who they were?

Thus was born the idea of the New Haven resident ID card. It will enable undocumented residents to open bank accounts. We are working with several banks that have expressed interest in accepting the ID. One bank has already signed on.

Other cities have come up with their own solutions to the problems of their immigrant populations. Denver, Kansas City, Mo., and Austin, Texas, have made nonpayment of even minimal wages - a frequent problem for undocumented laborers - a crime. Stamford, Conn., has created a no-hassle zone where day laborers can find jobs without harassment from officials.

All of us seek not to write new federal policy but to act in the face of the failure of federal responsibility.

John DeStefano Jr. is mayor of New Haven.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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