A coalition of social justice groups is pushing for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County to become the first government in the Kansas City area to issue municipal identification cards to residents.
The coalition, which includes the ACLU of Kansas, says as many as one in five Wyandotte County residents belong to demographic groups that are likely to have trouble obtaining a government-issued photo ID.
Those groups include immigrants, people earning less than $25,000 a year, senior citizens, people released from the corrections system and people without a permanent address. The ACLU says a quarter of African-American adults nationwide lack a government-issued form of identification.
Without an official ID card, people may find themselves turned away when they try to open a bank account, seek medical services, apply for public benefits or even pick up a package from the postal service. They also may be reluctant to approach law-enforcement officers to report crimes or help solve them.
Municipal ID programs have been gaining traction over the last few years, as the federal and some state governments have tightened requirements for obtaining driver’s licenses and other official forms of identification. Advocates are urging local governments and communities to create accessible, inexpensive municipal identification programs that will give people access to basic services.
At a forum Monday night at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kansas, Erica Downey recounted how a lost government ID threw her life into limbo. She was in the process of moving and changing jobs, but she couldn’t start work until she produced an official identification.
Without access to a paycheck, she was unable to come up with the $75 she needed to obtain her birth certificate from Texas. It took a month’s delay before she was able to secure the required documents and start work, Downey said. By then her electricity had been cut off.
“Eventually my pastor helped me get the documents for my birth certificate,” Downey said. She finally regained her state identification card, which enabled her to begin work.
Another speaker, Diana Martinez, talked about having an admissions interview cut short at a community college because she lacked an official state ID. With a municipal ID, she may have at least gotten her questions answered, Martinez said.
A number of cities — including New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and Iowa City — already offer municipal IDs. To avoid singling out at-risk groups, such as immigrants, cities try to get as many residents as possible into the program. Most IDs offer discounts to services, cultural attractions and sometimes stores or restaurants. Oakland’s municipal ID even doubles as a debit card.
Although the programs are proving popular, they are not without controversy. Critics, including some state and federal lawmakers, say municipal IDs are part of the “sanctuary” movement to protect undocumented immigrants. New York City faced a lawsuit over plans to destroy documents, like foreign passports, that it used to verify people’s identities. The city prevailed in court and now eliminates identifying documents as soon as an ID is issued.
The ACLU of Kansas, backed by a consortium of community groups, sent a letter in September to Mayor Mark Holland and commissioners of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.
“Having government-issued photo identification confers a sense of dignity, access to vital resources, and strengthens community safety,” the letter said. “... we see first-hand the struggles that many Wyandotte County residents face because they lack access to a government-issued photo identification card.”
The mayor and commissioners have not formally responded to the letter. Timing may be an issue. Holland and three commissioners are facing re-election bids in an election next week.
In a statement, Holland indicated he was receptive to the idea of a municipal ID program.
“It looks like this would be a great win for our community, and we are actively looking into it,” he said.
Consenting to the concept of a municipal ID program would only be a first step. From there, officials would have to agree on details such as the cost, who would administer the program, what documents would be needed to obtain an identification card and whether copies of the documents would be retained. Some communities outsource management of their programs to non-profit groups.
The ACLU and other backers said they intend to advocate for municipal ID programs in other cities in the region.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.