What happened to Baltimore’s municipal ID program, promised six years ago? Councilwoman aims to find out

Published on: September 08, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Councilmember Odette Ramos laughs with residents in her district at the Pride Flag distribution. "This is a way for neighbors to be supportive of the LGBT community, especially since so many feel threatened. Even though we don't know that this incident was a hate crime; everything is being invested right now, and there are a lot of people who felt that it was," Ramos said.

In 2016, Baltimore City leaders passed a measure that would allow any resident to obtain a municipal identification card. They hailed it as an important step toward making government services and programs more accessible to some of the city’s most vulnerable, including immigrants living in the country without legal permission, transgender individuals and those experiencing homelessness.

However, the municipal ID program was never funded or implemented. Six years later, Councilwoman Odette Ramos wants to find out why.

Ramos plans to introduce a resolution on Monday calling for the Baltimore City Council to set a public hearing on the matter, which she hopes will be a first step toward making the program a reality.

Government-issued IDs are often required for a range of services, such as applying for utility assistance programs, renting homes and obtaining government benefits, Ramos said. State-issued IDs are not available for everyone, she added, and can take a longer time to process.

“It’s a housing issue, it’s an access-to-services issue. It’s also just being part of our community,” Ramos said.

Across the country, 39 cities have active municipal ID programs, with 30 additional cities considering implementing similar programs, according to Angela García, an assistant professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago. García has been studying Chicago’s municipal ID program since its launch in 2018.

In Chicago, 36,000 people signed up to get a city-issued identification card during the first year of the program, García said. More than 20% of municipal ID enrollees surveyed by researchers had no form of prior domestic or foreign government-issued identification. Enrollees included noncitizen immigrants, people who had been formerly incarcerated, individuals struggling with homelessness and transgender Chicagoans, she said. They reported experiencing challenges gaining access to buildings, receiving housing and other city services, interacting with police and getting financial services. According to PolicyLink, a national research and action institute, municipal identification cards can boost local economies by allowing more people to open bank accounts.

Opponents of municipal ID proposals in other cities have said they feared the programs would attract more immigrants living in the country illegally.

Baltimore’s 2016 ordinance, sponsored by then-council member Brandon Scott, now the city’s mayor, notes that an inability to obtain government-issued ID “leaves thousands of individuals — including immigrants, homeless people, transgender people, senior citizens, young people, and formerly incarcerated people — without access to critical services, benefits, and cultural, educational, and civic opportunities.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

To obtain a municipal ID, residents would be required to prove their identity and that they live in the city, the ordinance states. The city would not keep copies of documents provided by applicants or other identifying information to maintain confidentiality.

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The new resolution, to be introduced by Ramos, seeks to bring various city departments together to talk about the status of the municipal ID program, identify the obstacles, discuss solutions and lay out a timeline for implementation.

CASA, which represents Latino, immigrant and working-class members in Maryland and across the country, was a major advocate for bringing municipal IDs to Baltimore six years ago, said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, the Baltimore and Central Maryland region director of CASA.

“We are missing a huge opportunity in making sure that our city is a welcoming city where immigrant community members feel safe,” Walther-Rodriguez said.

Adoption of the ordinance in 2016 came not long before Republican Donald Trump’s swearing-in as president. Walther-Rodriguez said Trump then undertook a series of anti-immigrant policy changes that caused immigrant communities to panic and heightened mistrust of government entities. Implementing municipal ID will help rebuild trust between residents and their local government, Walther-Rodriguez said.

“Municipal ID, for our members, is a huge part of feeling safe in the city and feeling there is some sort of ID that they can utilize and ensure when they get pulled over, they have an ID to show,” she said, adding it can also be used to go to schools or visit loved ones at the hospital.

Immigrants can currently receive state-issued IDs in the form of driver’s licenses, Walther-Rodriguez said. However, if someone cannot prove U.S. citizenship or provide immigration documentation, their license will say, “Not for federal use.”

“So it becomes a giveaway for someone who is undocumented,” she said.

Municipal IDs would not list documentation status and therefore will be “a step towards Baltimore truly becoming a welcoming city for all the residents who live there,” Walther-Rodriguez said.

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