Testimony: Municipal ID Card; legal advocacy for immigrants

Testimony of Samuel Palmer-Simon before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration Regarding Proposed Bill No. 253

April 30, 2014 

Committee Chair Council Member Carlos Menchaca, Council Member Daniel Dromm and Distinguished Members of the Committee:

The New York Legal Assistance Group (“NYLAG”) endorses and encourages passage of the instant initiative to create a New York City identity card program. In general, we believe that all efforts to encourage further immigrant involvement and integration into the civil fabric of New York City are laudable.  Our experience as legal advocates for immigrants informs us that many of our clients harbor deep-seated fears and anxieties regarding interactions with government officials of any stripe. The result of such inhibitions is that many individuals abstain from accessing services to which they are entitled, and a sense of divisiveness amongst immigrant and non-immigrant groups is permitted to thrive. Therefore, a program which seeks to facilitate interactions between municipal agencies and immigrant groups, while offering a useful alternative form of identification, would certainly be a net positive to our clients and their families.

It can be difficult to comprehend the difficulties the immigrants of New York City face on a daily basis as they attempt to navigate labyrinthine bureaucracies, which have little to no patience or awareness for their specific needs. A process that might appear straight forward and approachable for some, may very well be perceived as extremely traumatic and impenetrable to others, such as our clients. By way of example, one of our clients was recently sent to 1 Police Plaza in order to be fingerprinted for a City-wide background check. This client suffers from acute post-traumatic stress syndrome and other maladies induced by years of domestic violence and the early-life trauma of female genital mutilation in her home country of Mali. Though she was accompanied by a translator and friend, her experience was fraught with difficulty. She did not have the proper form filled out. She did not possess the correct form of identification. She must stand on this line instead of that line. At day’s end, she returned to our office empty handed and deflated. The following day, a paralegal accompanied her and ushered her through the process, delicately explaining to the officer on duty that she was a victim of domestic violence and would get what she had come seeking. A universally-accepted municipal identity card would certainly have aided our client in her interaction with the New York Police Department. However, it would not cure the problem entirely.

While offering a municipal identity card to all New Yorkers regardless of their immigration status sends a message of tolerance and sensitivity to immigrants residing here, broader reform of our municipal and state laws and policies is necessary if we are to truly serve the needs of our city’s immigrant groups.  To wit, increased language access capacity and cultural sensitivity training must accompany any reforms to our municipal civil services regime. Without creating a welcoming atmosphere for immigrants, access to services means very little. Further, current New York City and State laws regarding the practice of immigration law, and the regulation thereof, allow for many immigrants to be defrauded by non-attorney practitioners who act with relative impunity. Having been defrauded, the majority of victims have no place and no person to turn to. In addition, the New York Police Department should adopt, or be made to adopt, more immigrant-friendly policies if we are to encourage immigrants to regularly report crimes and interact openly with police officers. Our recommendations to the NYPD would include a more transparent policy regarding their signing of U visa certifications and a policy that would further limit the use of immigration detainers for criminal detainees.

In sum, we hope that the creation of a municipal identity card will foster a social and political environment where greater reforms become a reality and our city’s immigrants can live without fear of those who are there to aid them. We believe that New York City is poised to become a beacon of acceptance and sensitivity towards immigrants and we are pleased to assist in that effort.

Respectfully submitted,

Samuel Palmer-Simon, Esq.
New York Legal Assistance Group