Cities and other local jurisdictions are often at the front lines of responding to migration flows, with migrant residents requiring assistance in finding housing, employment, and accessing social benefits, among other essential services. However, for many migrant residents with irregular legal or immigration status, a lack of official government-issued identification can be a significant barrier to full societal integration. In response, cities have stepped in to issue their own identification cards. This presentation highlights key findings of research on municipal- and county-level identification programs in the United States and elsewhere conducted by the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) with the support of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) International Migration Initiative. This research sought to understand the characteristics of successful municipal IDs; explore the technologies that enable their deployment, adoption, and use; and determine the needs of cities interested in replication.
CFI examined the legal justification for these municipal identification initiatives, the political environment in which these programs were established, their financial inclusion impacts, the relevant privacy implications, and their overall impact on costs to cities and benefits to communities of concern, especially undocumented residents. Specifically, for municipal ID initiatives in the United States, CFI found:
- Programs’ success depends on the political environment in which they operate: The most successful programs have a high degree of support from, and often originate with, community advocates and require buy-in across multiple levels of local government.
- Cities and local jurisdictions typically have the operational and technical capacity to launch and implement municipal ID card programs: Currently, most municipal ID cards are not very technically sophisticated, and many cities and local jurisdictions already have the internal capacity to issue and verify similar identification documents and credentials. In addition, cities often leverage the trusted relationships that community-based organizations have established with migrant populations to promote and raise awareness around their programs.
- However, most municipal ID initiatives have limited scale and utility: With some key exceptions, most programs in the United States have issued very few municipal ID cards and uptake among populations of interest has been low. In addition, many municipal ID cards offer little benefit to undocumented and other residents beyond identification, rendering them largely ineffective for key use cases such as opening a bank account.
Facilitating greater social integration and bridging the official identification gap for migrant residents through municipal IDs is no small feat for cities and local jurisdictions. The benefits to these communities are, in many instances, immeasurable. However, for these municipal identification initiatives to succeed, stakeholders who are interested in establishing programs of their own should focus on creating broader community and political buy-in and developing helpful functionality for the cards beyond identification to ensure that they deliver the maximum utility to the residents who would benefit from them the most.
In addition, this research also informed further study that examined the emergency cash transfer programs established in the United States to support residents who did not qualify for federal economic assistance in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, available here.