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Tucson officials should look to New Haven, Conn., as an ID-card example

Tucson could learn a few things from New Haven, Conn. That gritty New England city became the first in the nation last week to offer identification cards to its residents, including an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 illegal immigrants. Mayor John DeStefano hopes immigrants will get the city-issued ID cards to help "build a stronger community," a recent story from The Associated Press reports. Other cities would do well to follow suit.

New Haven officials are smart enough to realize punitive, constitutionally questionable and difficult-to-enforce measures such as Arizona's employer-sanctions law are not solutions to the immigration issue. Though the city's decision was denounced by anti-immigrant voices, raising the usual outcry over a flooded labor market, DeStefano countered that it was available work and "not a piece of plastic" that attracts immigrants.

By offering a city identification card, New Haven adds to its already enlightened approach of making federal tax help available to immigrants and, in marked contrast to some municipalities, actively prohibiting its police force from inquiring about immigration status. "You can't police a community of people who won't talk to our cops," DeStefano told the AP.

While New Haven's actions could stand as a model for other communities, the national tendency has been in the opposite direction. In addition to the penalties businesses face for hiring illegals, new laws make it harder for immigrants to find housing since landlords risk sanctions for renting to the undocumented. Some law-enforcement agencies--already spread thin in many parts of the nation--are being required to take a more active role in the implementation of what is fast becoming a hodgepodge of reactive measures.

An identification card helps undocumented immigrants navigate activities such as opening a bank account, getting a library card or cashing a check. More important, it may increase the degree to which immigrants feel they have a stake in the community.

People who are not marginalized, and whose lives are made easier rather than more difficult, are far less likely to become easy prey for criminals eager to exploit fear and uncertainty. Another potential benefit to an ID card is a decrease in identify theft. While not all identity theft is for the relatively benign purpose of establishing "personhood" in order to, say, rent an apartment, it is likely that some percentage is fueled by that type of simple necessity.

Immigrants who are here for the purpose of earning enough money to keep themselves and their families from facing poverty or extreme political conditions in their native countries are more likely to apply for the IDs than less savory characters. And employers willing to ignore federal laws by hiring undocumented workers would be more inclined to hire those with IDs. Criminal elements may find it more difficult to operate when a class of "semi-legitimized" immigrants is invested in the community.

Privacy advocates may join the anti-immigrant chorus in denouncing New Haven's action as another step toward a national ID card. But this would be a misplaced focus of their energy. Working on the sale of private information by an assortment of companies could provide reforms more urgently needed than railing against some phantom threat of Big Brother.

Unlike Americans, many of whom quake at the thought of identification cards, Europeans seem undaunted by their governments' practice of requiring personal ID cards. But there is a significant difference between making ID cards available--which is what New Haven did--and making them mandatory. While no one should be required to carry identification (there's a nostalgic, decidedly American-romantic notion of the free-roaming individual at work here), modern life is eased by being able to produce an ID in certain situations.

This is not to say ID cards should ever be made a requirement. Dissident voices may indeed want to remain in the shadows. But for the average citizen, and certainly for those immigrants forced out of their countries by circumstances most of us cannot imagine, an ID not only makes sense, but is a humane first step in addressing a situation needing this kind of reasoned response--a step Tucson officials would be wise to consider.

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