Dozens of people lined up at City Hall on Tuesday for municipal identification cards, the first city-issued ID cards specifically designed to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows and give them access to community services.
The cards, available to New Haven's entire population, are meant to help anyone without a state- or federal-issued ID open bank accounts and use other services that would otherwise be inaccessible. Advocates argue that if immigrants can open bank accounts, they will be less likely to carry large amounts of cash, a practice that makes them easy targets for robbers.
An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 of New Haven's 125,000 residents are believed to be in the country illegally.
"The simple straightforward purpose here is to build a stronger community," Mayor John DeStefano said. "You can't police a community of people who won't talk to our cops."
The mayor said the federal government had failed to address immigration-related issues, forcing cities to find ways to manage them. New Haven is simply acknowledging the people who already live there, he said.
"I think New Haven is doing something that makes sense for New Haven," DeStefano said. "Service to one another in community, more than waving an American flag, defines the spirit of our soul."
Ray Sanchez, a 36-year-old laborer waiting in line at City Hall with more than 100 others, said the card would also let him get a library card, use banks and learn English. It also would make him feel safer, he said.
"We need to send money to the places we come from. For me, I feel better. If the police catch me, I have identification now," Sanchez said.
The ID cards stand in contrast to new laws or proposals in more than 90 cities or counties around the nation prohibiting landlords from leasing to illegal immigrants, penalizing businesses that employ them or training police to enforce immigration laws.
New Haven already offers federal tax help to immigrants and prohibits police from asking about their immigration status. The new ID cards cost $5 for children and $10 for adults.
Shortly after city officials approved the program, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducted raids that led to about 30 arrests. City officials said the raids appeared to be retaliatory, but customs officials said the raids had nothing to do with the program.