A New York State assemblymember who represents Bay Ridge and Staten Island has co-filed a lawsuit to prevent the mayor’s office from destroying data accumulated by the city’s municipal ID program, known as IDNYC, primarily designed to offer identification to undocumented immigrants. IDNYC allows for applicants’ data to be destroyed, an effective kill switch designed to keep such information out of the hands of an anti-immigrant administration—an eventuality that seemed more theoretical than real at the time of its drafting in 2015.
Republican Nicole Malliotakis announced the filing last week, on the steps of the Richmond County Courthouse on Staten Island, with fellow Republican Assemblymember Ron Castorina of Staten Island. They sought an injunction, under article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules, to prevent the mayor’s office from destroying IDNYC data. The assemblymembers cited the possibilities of banking fraud, national security concerns and even potential terror threats as the impetus behind preserving the personal information of almost 900,000 New Yorkers stored within secure databases of the IDNYC program.
The lawsuit has renewed the concerns of program supporters and immigrant-rights activists that the information could be used for the purposes of deportation; the lawsuit arrived shortly after an election determined in part by anti-immigrant fervor. Castorina, who supported Trump and still supports his proposed wall along the U.S. border, was quick to dismiss these concerns as “fearmongering.” Instead, he said, the lawsuit was motivated by security concerns, not immigration issues; he said people might use the ID cards in “a way where nefarious conduct may certainly ensue”—engaging in his own fearmongering! (Malliotakis, who supported Rubio in the primaries, was silent about Trump leading up to the election.)
I asked the assemblymembers whether they had consulted with law enforcement agencies—particularly the NYPD or the department of homeland security—when drafting the lawsuit, because they said national-security concerns were the driving force behind their suit, but the suit doesn’t mention them. Castorina said that although he “had conversations with several members of law enforcement,” there was a “legal issue of standing regarding these kinds of claims” and so “we did not bring those types of claims” in the lawsuit. Malliotakis doubled down on the terror threats, even mentioning the The 9-11 Commission Report and pointing out “all but one of the hijackers had some form of government identification, most of which were obtained by fraudulent means.” She added, “that’s what we’re concerned about, that that opens the door for some instances of fraud.”
Although the lawsuit amounts to a glorified FOIL request ginned up to look like urgent national security business, a judge granted the injunction last Tuesday. With the personal data of almost 900,000 applicants now at stake, this has the potential to do permanent damage to the program, both because the city now might have to break its word to applicants but also because of the cloud of terror and criminality that now stigmatizes a swath of the populace.
Response from the Mayor
The mayor’s office remains committed to keeping this personal information out of the hands of an anti-immigrant administration. In an unrelated press conference at One Police Plaza the same day as the Staten Islanders’, before the suit was filed, Mayor de Blasio touted the benefits of the program, not just for undocumented residents but for the entire city. “The whole idea of IDNYC was to give people an opportunity in this city to live a better life for themselves and their families, to have a deeper connection to the city and the city government: that they could go visit a loved one in the hospital, they could go visit their child’s teacher, that if they had an interaction with a police officer there was an ID recognized by the NYPD.”
De Blasio said the success of the program depended on the trust between the city and its most vulnerable residents, which depends upon the protection and security of the information the city gathered. “The reason people were willing to trust us is we made very clear that there would never be a situation where it would lead to their deportation,” he said, “and we’re going to keep that pledge.”
Rosemary Boeglin, a spokesperson for the mayor, reiterated the mayor’s commitment to protecting personal information when reached for comment last week after the lawsuit had been filed, and she pushed back against the rationale for filing. “The safety of New Yorkers is City Hall’s top priority,” she said, “and that includes safeguarding the privacy and security of IDNYC cardholder data. Claims that IDNYC is being used by those intending serious harm is reckless fearmongering.”
The Mayor and city council vowed on Wednesday to stick to the original terms of the agreement. Starting in January, the city would no longer keep applicants’ data, a joint statement from the mayor’s office and the city council speaker’s office announced the day the injunction was granted.
Sunset Park’s Democratic Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, chair of the committee on immigration and one of the initial sponsors of the program, said this on Thursday: “My position has not changed on IDNYC. I remain fully committed to protecting the data of the over 900,000 New Yorkers who signed up for this important program—and this council will use every legal resource at its disposal to protect confidential information from disclosure.”
As the legal challenge from the Staten Island lawmakers plays out, it’s worth remembering the original purpose of the program, to get beyond the heated rhetoric that will no doubt only intensify come January.
A History of IDNYC
When it launched in January 2015, IDNYC’s supporters saw it as an important way to reach out to and connect with immigrant communities and undocumented residents in the city. The program had the support of religious and civic leaders, activist groups and even the NYPD. Modeled on similar programs across the country—from New Haven to Los Angeles and San Francisco—IDNYC quickly became the largest such program in the country. Six months into the program, more than 400,000 people had enrolled, and by now almost 900,000 IDs have been issued, giving many people access to crucial basic services. New York is also the first city with a municipal ID program that permits applicants to self-identify their genders. The success of IDNYC has encouraged other cities to look into their own programs.
From the beginning, however, there were questions about both the use to which the data could be put and the degree to which vulnerable populations would therefore be willing to step out of the shadows to obtain IDs. The ACLU cautioned that any security measures could be subject to lawsuits. But the benefits of the program and the security protocols put in place by the city overshadowed these concerns for many.
Few foresaw, however, the political earthquake of the recent presidential election that would thrust issues such as sanctuary cities, DACA or IDNYC into the spotlight; few thought anti-immigrant voices would be so quickly emboldened. It’s more important now than ever that we look beyond fearmongering and try to understand the facts.
In contrast to the fears of terror and unspecified “nefarious conduct” raised by Malliotakis and Castorina, a nonpartisan independent evaluation by Westat Inc. found that the impact of IDNYC has been beneficial. According to the executive summary, “By the most fundamental marker—number of New Yorkers with cards—IDNYC was a success almost immediately. With 863,464 cardholders as of June 30, 2016, IDNYC has far surpassed all other municipal ID programs in the country.” Its success has been most strongly felt by immigrants. “Among survey respondents who are immigrants, 36 percent rely on IDNYC as their only form of U.S. photo identification.”
Beyond the numbers, though, the card has made it easier for people to perform such daily tasks as picking up their children from school or opening a checking account, and it has made encounters with the police less stressful—all of which can be significant sources of frustration to those without means or identification, and which can lead to feelings of alienation.
As for banking, at their press conference, Malliotakis and Castorina, both of whom are on the assembly’s banking committee, repeatedly said these IDs could be used maliciously. Castorina found “troublesome” the idea that the New York superintendent for the department of financial services (DoFS) unilaterally ruled that the cards could be used to open bank accounts and later said that he had talked with “some folks regarding FDIC issues, the Patriot Act and other things that I think will ultimately be an issue with this Municipal ID.”
But the reason big banks have been hesitant to accept the ID, which is what prompted the letter from DoFS in the first place, may at least in part be because the DoFS heavily fined financial institutions it previously determined had inadequately secured their system against money laundering and other bad practices. To invoke fears of financial malfeasance and conflate these concerns with national security or to suggest that the city is indifferent to these concerns is to delegitimize the program—and stigmatize those people trying to navigate a system already designed to take advantage of them.
Access to banking is so important because it allows working people to avoid the usurious fees of check-cashing operations, which can financially strain working families. “Immigrants, in particular, often turn to check cashing businesses and other sometimes unlawful forms of lending,” according to the Westat study. “Doing so both comes with a high cost in fees and charges, and also does not allow them to build savings and develop a credit history.”
As to IDNYC’s success in easing encounters with the police, this is not surprising—the program was developed in consultation with the NYPD and other agencies. “The NYPD played an especially important role in the program’s development,” according to the Westat study. In fact, “[a]s a result of this collaboration, the NYPD Patrol Guide was formally modified to include the IDNYC card as a valid form of identification.”
Another benefit of the program that the independent evaluators highlighted (one that is particularly meaningful to me) is that it “has also been used by participants casting ballots in the City Council’s Participatory Budgeting program, which permits all residents of New York City to directly vote on proposals for the spending of public money.” Like the ID cards, participatory budgeting is an important mechanism of civic involvement.
All of these efforts are intended to integrate populations—people who are already here—into the fabric of the city. In addition to facilitating the daily life and access to services and municipal spaces (the IDs provide no entitlements other than promotional access to certain cultural institutions), the IDs have given cardholders a sense of belonging to a city that they might otherwise see as forbidding and difficult to navigate. The access granted by the ID cards “makes them feel like a ‘real’ New Yorker,” focus group participants said.
The nonpartisan evaluation does raise concerns about the program, especially over data retention and the dangerous “myths” that have built up around municipal IDs (myths that this lawsuit will no doubt amplify). “In spite of considerable efforts to publicize the security measures in place, the single greatest reason people hesitated to get the ID was related to concerns that it was being used to monitor New Yorkers,” according to the study. Furthermore, “transparency from the City about plans for the stored data is essential.” A lawsuit clothed in the rhetoric of national security will certainly not ease people’s minds.
Releasing the data would seriously damage the already fragile trust between city government and its immigrant population, which finds itself under constant suspicion and attack. It would utterly defeat the main, if unstated, goal of the program, which is to foster this sense of civic belonging. Municipal IDs historically strike a delicate balance between privacy issues and security concerns. It remains to be seen if the lawsuit is convincing about security issues, either in the courts or the public mind. But there are real consequences to the rhetoric used to promote the lawsuit. Stoking terror fears instead of deportation simply shifts the anxiety from one population to another.
To suggest, as Assemblymember Castorina did, that fears of deportation were overblown, but then invoke, as Assemblymember Malliotakis did, fears of terrorism, is troubling. Especially when hate crimes are on the rise. Mayor de Blasio’s comments defending the IDNYC program on Monday were at an unrelated press conference at which he sat alongside Officer Aml Elsokary of the NYPD, a Muslim woman who wears the hijab both off duty and on. Elsokary was harassed the previous evening; she and her son were verbally attacked by a man who yelled “Isis!” and then threatened to slit her throat, according to news reports. To reassure people over deportation concerns while simultaneously stoking fears of terrorism is to miss the way that these issues are tangled up in the national discourse.
Or perhaps it’s not to miss it at all? It may seem surprising that lawmakers from a city as diverse as NYC would use such heated rhetoric during a time of increased hate crimes while discussing a program designed to ease tensions and help better integrate marginalized communities into the fabric of the city. One reason might be that, according to the outside study, “enrollment of New Yorkers from Staten Island into the program has been lower than the other boroughs.” So Staten Island politicians are perhaps not as politically invested in the program—or in the members of the city it is designed to serve—as are lawmakers are from other parts of the city.
Right now, the worst-case scenario is that even if the lawsuit ultimately fails, the rhetoric used to promote it will successfully stigmatize those who seek these IDs. One way of minimizing this stigma would be if more and more people signed up for them. The ID card is available to every NYC resident no matter your status, and the application process is simple. Hey Ridge has already covered the application process and made a plea for all residents to apply, whether you need the card or not, out of solidarity with those who are vulnerable to the stigma that might otherwise attach to the cards or who might be feeling that bond of trust with the city weakening.
I went online and downloaded the form (a single page), and scheduled an appointment in a few days at one of the processing sites here in Brooklyn. I encourage all Bay Ridgites to get their own IDs. It can’t be only the Mayor and the City Council who has immigrants’ backs.