North Carolina Lawmakers Are Trying To Take Away The Only ID Undocumented Immigrants Can Get

A woman holds a FaithAction ID. CREDIT: FAITHACTION
A woman holds a FaithAction ID. CREDIT: FAITHACTION

North Carolina lawmakers are debating a bill designed to kill a program created by nonprofits and faith groups that gives undocumented immigrants, homeless people, ex-prisoners, and others identification cards to use with law enforcement and medical facilities.

On Tuesday, two North Carolina lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 868, an anti-immigration bill that would prohibit law enforcement officials from accepting FaithAction IDs, which are used by police in certain cities to identify undocumented immigrants.

In a joint statement, the two co-sponsors of the bill — Republican State Senators Norman Sanderson and Buck Newton — argued their intent is to prevent law enforcement from “harboring” immigrants and keep citizens safe.

A woman with a FaithAction ID. CREDIT: FaithAction
A woman with a FaithAction ID. CREDIT: FaithAction

“It’s just plain common sense that cities and counties ought to be enforcing federal and state immigration laws and not harboring illegal aliens at the potential expense of their own citizens’ safety,” the statement read. “Hopefully this bill will provide some extra incentive for local officials to do the right thing.”


But supporters of the ID program say it was created in partnership with law enforcement officials precisely because police wanted to make cities safer — and that destroying it will only damage hard-earned trust between immigrants and officers.

The initiative was launched three years ago in Greensboro, North Carolina, when local advocacy organization FaithAction International House realized that undocumented immigrants were afraid to call the police when crimes occurred, fearing officers would arrest them instead because they lacked identification. The group convened a series of conversations between immigrant community leaders and police representatives to explore how to address the problem, but the discussion kept circling back to the same issue: immigrants didn’t trust police because they asked for ID, and police didn’t trust immigrants because they couldn’t identify them.

The issue of unreported crimes is alarmingly common within undocumented immigrant communities. According to a 2013 study, 70 percent of undocumented Latino immigrants said they would neither file a police report as a victim nor list themselves as a witness to a crime out of fear of deportation. San Francisco and New York City have addressed this concern by creating city-specific ID systems, printing cards that do not carry the same legal weight as driver’s licenses or federal IDs but do assist police and help cardholders access city services. But these programs are often too expensive for smaller towns to replicate, prompting FaithAction Executive Director Rev. David Fraccaro to brainstorm another option: encourage faith communities — which are already trusted by law enforcement — to issue IDs instead.

“A lot of immigrants who were victims of crimes who were afraid to call law enforcement, which is bad for the entire city — people are committing crimes and getting away with it,” he said. “Large northern cities have the means to run a city ID program — but that’s not the same for cities in the south or midwest or other parts of the United States … So we asked, ‘What if we created an ID?’”

One human trafficking case was solved primarily because a person came forward who said they only trust police because [they attended] a FaithAction ID drive.

Local police eagerly supported the idea, collaborating with FaithAction and a group of local Hispanic pastors on a pilot program to see if the cards would empower undocumented people to begin trusting police. The initiative created a number of stringent requirements similar to acquiring an ID from the DMV, and organizers scheduled ID drives where law enforcement officials met with applicants to dispel myths that police were enemies of the community.


“We spend almost 2 hours with the individuals [at ID drives] where we discuss what laws are most often unknown or to people moving to our state — and we talk about the ways police typically contact citizens,” Captain Mike Richey of the Greensboro Police Department told ThinkProgress. “We come in contact with [these immigrants] primarily as victims. If they don’t contact us, than that’s someone being victimized that isn’t getting help in our community.

“The bottom line is, these individuals are here, and we want them to live safely in our community,” he said.

One year later, the effort was already helping mend relationships between immigrants and law enforcement — and catch criminals.

“We’ve actually solved several larger cases as a result of that relationship between communities becoming stronger,” Richey said. “One human trafficking case was solved primarily because a person came forward who said they only trust police because [they attended] a FaithAction ID drive. We’ve also [aided the community] with other crimes, primarily instances of domestic violence — especially women.”

“It’s a community driven response to a broken federal system,” Fraccaro added.

One of FaithAction’s ID drives. CREDIT: FaithAction
One of FaithAction’s ID drives. CREDIT: FaithAction

The program slowly expanded to two other cities in the state, with churches and nonprofits partnering with police departments and hospitals to help immigrants get access to basic services. FaithAction and its affiliates also began issuing cards to others who could benefit from an ID, such as people recently released from jail and the homeless.


“We have a client that he needs certain medicine — before this ID he wasn’t able to pick it up from the pharmacy,” said Dolce Ortiz, Administrative Assistant and coordinator of Latino Outreach and Education at FaithAction. “Now he can, and people have been able to pick up medicine for their kids sometimes.”

Despite these successes, the program came under fire in September 2015 when the state legislature introduced a controversial anti-immigration bill that included a provision prohibiting law enforcement from accepting FaithAction IDs. Police chiefs rushed to defend the program, speaking out against the bill and referring to the ID initiative as a “model” for breaking down barriers between police and immigrants. Their advocacy eventually proved successful: shortly before the governor signed the bill into law, the language was narrowed to prohibit only city officials from accepting the cards, keeping partnerships with law enforcement and hospitals intact.

“Law enforcement, in a rare move, pushed back — they said, ‘we need this ID,’” Fraccaro said.

The media blitz drew attention to the program, which was quickly adopted by 14 police agencies and 2 major regional medical centers in just six months time. To date, roughly 2,200–2,600 people hold FaithAction IDs in the Greensboro area, and roughly 6,000 carry them statewide. The idea is even catching on outside North Carolina: on Wednesday, a group of police officials and faith leaders in Cincinnati, Ohio announced a new ID program based on the Greensboro initiative.

Fracarro noted that the program’s strength stems in part from intentional efforts to build trust, such as bringing law enforcement officials to ID drives to meet and converse with undocumented immigrants.

“When we hold ID drive, law enforcement are in the room — there is dialogue,” he said. “It’s beautiful. There is laughter, there are tears, there is honesty. There are law enforcement who are able to say ‘You know, my parents were once undocumented too.’”

Undocumented Immigrants Launch Local ID Program

On Feb. 19 in Asheboro, North Carolina, over 600 people stepped out of the shadows to get their local ID after many months of working together to build support for the ID program.United We Dream, Asheboro Unidos, Faith Action, and rural communities across North Carolina are proud to launch these local campaigns to ensure all residents feel safe and welcome regardless of their immigration status. Produced by UWD’s emerging Media Makers team.

Posted by United We Dream on Sunday, February 21, 2016

Although FaithAction isn’t tied to a single faith tradition, many of its partners are churches who represent the latest in a recent surge of pro-immigrant religious activism. An unusually diverse group of faith groups support federal immigration reform, for instance, and growing number of worshiping communities have signed up to be part of the New Sanctuary Movement — an effort to protect undocumented immigrants scheduled for deportation by harboring them in churches.

“The question I always go back to the [biblical] question, ‘who is my neighbor?’” Fraccaro, who is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, said.

But with the state legislature once again moving to kill FaithAction IDs, Fraccaro and other faith-based advocates say they are increasingly concerned lawmakers could reverse the trust they have worked so hard to forge between immigrants and law enforcement. It also remains to be seen whether police chiefs will once again step up to oppose the bill — especially in the midst of an election year where GOP presumptive nominee Donald Trump, who won the North Carolina Democratic primary, is winning votes by spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Richey dismissed the argument that the IDs somehow inhibit immigration services, however, noting that local police are primarily concerned with public safety, not with deporting undocumented people.

“The ID program itself does not, in our experience, hurt or hinder immigration enforcement because your local departments are not involved,” he said.

In the meantime, Ortiz says that FaithAction is focused on maintaining the unusually close connection the ID program has forged between police and immigrants.

“I remember seeing this one kid at an ID drive. He told a police officer, ‘Right now I don’t have my documentation, but save a place for me — because when I am documented, I want to be a police officer too,’” Ortiz said. “That’s beautiful.”