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To Help Immigrants Feel Safer Around Police, Some Churches Start Issuing IDs

Archbishop William Lori announced a new program to issue parishioner ID cards outside a Baltimore church on Wednesday.
Kevin J. Parks
Catholic Review Media
Archbishop William Lori announced a new program to issue parishioner ID cards outside a Baltimore church on Wednesday.

For immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, it can be difficult to get a valid identification card. Now there's one very old organization trying to make it easier: the Catholic Church.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced Wednesday that its parishioners will now be able to get an ID card that shows name, address and data of birth, accompanied by the parish logo. While the cards clearly state they aren't government-issued IDs, the city of Baltimore and its police department say they will recognize the cards as an official form of identification.

One major goal of the cards' backers is to give immigrants more confidence in calling the police if they have been victims of a crime.

"If this identification helps one person pick up the phone and call the police, it has done what it's supposed to," Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said at a press conference about the new IDs on Wednesday. "No one in our city should live in fear."

The Rev. Bruce Lewandowski, one of the Baltimore priests who spearheaded the program with the nonprofit organization BUILD, echoed that.

"The best example I can think of, I call 911 to report a break in, my house has been robbed," Lewandowsi said, according to the archdiocese's Catholic Review. "I call the police, how do they know I live there? How do I identify myself? If I'm an immigrant, I can show them my passport, but that just says I come from another country." The parish ID, on the other hand, shows "there are people there who know me, and can verify my identity."

To obtain one of the IDs, an applicant needs to have been a parish member for three months and provide other identity documents and a witness to vouch for his or her identity. There will be no large database of cardholders, as a precaution against any potential federal effort to obtain the rolls.

Undocumented immigrants are eligible to apply for a driver's license in Maryland, but applicants must have filed Maryland income taxes for the prior two years prior. It's one of at least a dozen states and the District of Columbia that offer driver's licenses without regard to immigration status.

But that doesn't mean the licenses are necessarily easy to get. In 2016, The Washington Post reported that 6,000 people were waiting for the requisite appointment at D.C.'s Department of Motor Vehicles, and that it took many immigrants two years to get through the district's application system.

Many cities have also begun issuing their own municipal IDs. Baltimore passed a bill in 2016 allowing it to do so, but hasn't actually started offering them. Liz Alex, director of organizing at the immigrant aid group Casa de Maryland, toldthe Post that a city ID would be a lot more valuable than one from the church.

"Really what we need is the municipal ID card," she said. "I just hope our mayor and our council members don't accept this as a substitute for what we really need and what we've already passed."

The Archdiocese of Baltimore program is modeled after one in Texas, which has been issuing ID cards since the spring. Church leaders in the Dallas area came up with the idea of parish ID cards to help ease the fears of immigrants who had become afraid to drive, for fear of getting stopped by police and not having a way to offer identification. Texas does not issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law in May 2017 that bans sanctuary cities and allows police to inquire about the immigration status of those they detain. In the state's largely Democratic big cities, the police departments rarely make such inquiries.

Some of the Dallas-area parishes require people to be members of the parish for six months before they will be issued an ID. But not all do.

"You don't have to be Catholic" to get a card at his parish, the Rev. Michael Forge of Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Farmers Branch, Tex., told the Dallas News. Applicants do need to provide a government-issued ID from their country of origin and an affidavit testifying to their identity. "We certainly want our immigrants, legal or otherwise, to have some sort of peace."

In Baltimore, church officials hope the new IDs will give immigrants more than just a way to show their name and address. They also want to give a sense of belonging.

"It seems very small, but this is life-changing and world-changing for those who will hold it in their hands," said Lewandowski. "Because if they go anywhere and have an encounter with police, they'll be able to say 'Here I am. I live here, I belong here. This is my city.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
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