Councilwoman María Quiñones Sánchez.

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Philly’s proposed municipal ID program has taken a step forward. Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, D-7, shared a letter from Mayor Jim Kenney yesterday in an email to constituents. Kenney’s letter reaffirmed support of the IDs and detailed a partnership with Temple Law School’s Sheller Center for Social Justice to study issues surrounding data collection and security.

“I fully appreciate the benefits that a Municipal ID program would have on residents of our city, like opening a bank account, cashing a check, signing a lease, seeing a doctor at a hospital, filing a police report and registering a child for school,” Kenney wrote in the letter dated earlier this month. “These benefits are not only beneficial for our immigrant communities, but other communities as well, such as returning citizens, the elderly, and LGBTQ residents.”

Quiñones-Sánchez introduced the municipal ID bill in February 2016, but had previously proposed similar legislation with Kenney, then a councilman, as a co-sponsor back in 2013. The security concerns raised in the latter are the roadblock for the program moving forward, but let’s look at how programs like this generally work.

What’s a Municipal ID?

An alternative to forms of state identification, like driver’s licenses. Getting state IDs in Pennsylvania requires documentation like a birth certificate, U.S. passport or Social Security card. City-issued IDs appeal to populations who have difficulty presenting those docs. In immigrant advocacy circles, it’s touted as a means to make public institutions and services more accessible to undocumented residents. The most common test for whether or not a jurisdiction can be labeled as a “sanctuary” is if a locality limits cooperation with ICE requests regarding undocumented residents. But some immigrant rights activists consider true sanctuaries to be cities with welcoming policies and programs in place, like municipal IDs. Some critics contend that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of cities to create official IDs, just solely state and federal governments. Opponents have also argued that it aids immigrants for not having a legal residency status.

They are formatted and ideally work like any photo ID. Per Quiñones-Sánchez’s bill, city agencies would be mandated to accept them.

Who’s eligible?

Philadelphia residents, essentially. The bill provides a much wider list of options for proof of identity and residency that PennDOT currently does, including foreign driver’s licenses, school IDs based in PA or recent insurance bills.

Proponents of these programs highlight that it can diminish difficulties for transpeople seeking to have identification that reflects their gender identities, for people experiencing homelessness lacking access to certain documentation, or for elderly residents struggling to pin down materials issued around birth. City spokeswoman Ajeenah Amir said the city won’t be limiting a municipal ID push to immigrants, but is planning outreach across communities. Much of the conversation about municipal IDs, though, focuses on undocumented residents.

Would there be perks to getting one if I have a driver’s license?

New York’s  program offers discounts to monuments like the Statue of Liberty and free memberships to museums like the Met. Philly is looking into similar deals.

“We want our municipal ID to include a robust slate of benefits that encourages all Philadelphians to get one, both for the appeal of the benefits and as a matter of local pride, as has happened in New York with the IDNYC,” Quiñones-Sánchez told Billy Penn in a statement.” This will be a program that’s useful for everyone, including returning citizens, immigrant communities, and others who face barriers to obtainable identification.  We want to make it as affordable as possible for everyone and free where possible so all can participate.”

But, these benefits aren’t yet set. “The priority now is to determine how it could be implemented,” Amir explained.

What other cities do this?

New Haven was the first city to introduce them, according to the Philadelphia Citizen. While advocacy for municipal IDs predate Trump’s win, a run of localities have embraced them since then. Detroit, Chicago and Hartford have all recently launched their own ID cards, while Dallas and Boston are considering it. Phoenix has stalled the launch of its program for the similar concerns that Philly has at the moment: Will these cities be able to keep the information of undocumented residents private?

What are hurdles to launching this program?

The issue of whether NYC could shred materials accepted through the application process for its ID program made it all the way to New York State Supreme Court last month. Justice Philip Minardo ruled that the city is able to destroy said records. That legal battle raised questions and anxieties nationwide over local IDs possibly increasing the risk of deportation. This is precisely what the Kenney administration wants to avoid and a motivating force behind their current study with the Sheller Center. The bill, if passed in its current state, would bar the city from holding onto documents collected from applicants, make all such materials confidential and restrict the city from asking for more application requirements beyond what the bill outlines.

Functionality and security are the two biggest issues at the moment. The city wants the proof of residency options to be wider and more encompassing, but it doesn’t want institutions to become distrustful of the cards’ validity for having more flexible application requirements. Jennifer Lee, co-legal director at the Sheller Center, said pinpointing the information needed to guarantee that is one segment of their research. Another is maintaining applicant privacy.

The NYCLU opposed New York’s program in a statement due to concerns that the legislation would let “the city copy and store people’s most sensitive documentation.” The ACLU of PA’s Deputy Legal Director Mary Catherine Roper told Billy Penn the local affiliate is waiting to see.

“Like NYCLU, we support the City’s intention of helping all of Philly’s residents access important services, employment, etc. – all of the good features of a municipal ID,” Roper said in an email. “Naturally, if the plan they ultimately adopt has the kinds of problems that NYCLU identified in the NYC plan, we’d object to those features of the plan.  We look forward to seeing what they propose and hope we’ll have an opportunity to give feedback on it.”

“I don’t think that we’re seeing a ton of issues for the way the current landscape is, We have a Right-to-Know law here in PA, but [it has] a lot of exceptions.” said Lee. “An open question is whether Harrisburg would do something proactively to get the data, or the federal government could do something to proactively get the data. But there doesn’t appear to be any laws on the books for this that somehow stand in the way of the program or jeopardizes the privacy of the data, but that’s a really preliminary assessment.”

Lee said the Center has been studying potential tangles for roughly two months. After noting that their timeline isn’t concrete, she added that they’re hoping to complete their analysis by the end of next month, allowing the bill to move forward in Council.

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic...