The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore will issue identity cards to undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable people that the Baltimore Police Department has agreed to recognize — a program activists hope will make people more willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
Mayor Catherine Pugh and Archbishop William E. Lori joined church and community leaders Wednesday at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Canton, which is home to a large immigrant congregation and will run a pilot of the card system.
Pugh said that if the card gives even one person the confidence to report a crime, it will be a success.
“No one should become a victim and be afraid to call the police,” Pugh said.
The program is the city’s latest effort to aid immigrants, whom city leaders see having a significant role boosting the health of some neighborhoods.
The Police Department plays only a minimal role in enforcing immigration laws — which are a federal matter — and in March the city approved $200,000 in funding for lawyers to represent people facing deportation.
Advocates for immigrant communities say people without legal status in the United States are reluctant to come forward as victims or witnesses of crime. They say helping immigrants get an identity card from a trusted institution — the Catholic Church — will make people more comfortable talking to officers.
Pugh committed to the program at a town hall meeting in June.
Lori said the program has the backing of the archdiocese and its designers hope that vulnerable immigrants will be more willing to come forward and deal with the church, rather than the government, to get an identity document.
“Together, we are standing here. We are sending a clear message,” Lori said. “People have a right to be safe. People have a right to live in a city where we see each other as neighbors and friends, rather than strangers and enemies.”
To qualify for a card, an applicant will need to have been a member of a parish for three months, present other identity documents and have a witness testify to their identity. The cards will be linked to parish membership records, but there will not be a specific database of cardholders, which could guard against any future attempt by federal immigration officials to track cardholders.
Each card will bear the holder’s picture, the Sacred Heart parish logo and contact information for the church.
Maryland issues drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants, but requires applicants to have evidence they filed state taxes for two years or proof of residency. Advocates say immigrants often find the process difficult to successfully navigate.
Rachel Brooks, an organizer with the BUILD church coalition that helped design the program, said she expects several hundred people to sign up for the cards right away and that thousands of people might ultimately be interested.
“The value of it is being able to have something that is saying publicly you’re part of Baltimore City,” Brooks said. “People are hesitant to interact with police at all. It is one more step forward that gives people the feeling of security to be active members of our society.”
The Rev. Bruce Lewandowski, the priest at Sacred Heart, said in an interview that immigrants are often preyed upon by criminals who know they’re less likely to report an incident.
“A lot of our undocumented immigrant people, parishioners, do not call the police when they are victims of crime because they are afraid that the police are cooperating with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” he said.
It wasn’t clear how broadly the cards would be accepted. A news release issued by BUILD said city agencies would recognize the cards.
Catalina Rodriguez Lima, the head of the mayor’s immigrant relations office, said she wanted to emphasize that most city services don’t require people to present identity documents at all. But Brooks challenged that assertion, saying that when organizers attended meetings at City Hall to discuss the card program, they had to show identification to get into the building.
The police already accept a range of forms of identity, but the department did not immediately respond to a request for a complete list.
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At the announcement, interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said the credibility of BUILD and the Catholic Church was a “validator for the police.”
Tuggle said commanders would be introduced Thursday to the cards and training of officers would begin in two weeks. People without identity documents can currently report crimes, but, Tuggle said, being able to identify victims would help police deliver justice.
BUILD and the church also hope to start discussions with the city school system to see if it will accept the cards for access to school buildings.
Around the country, undocumented immigrants have a patchwork of ways to get an identity document.
As in Maryland, about a dozen states allow them to obtain drivers’ licenses, some cities issue ID cards and private groups have also launched programs elsewhere. Consulates of foreign governments also sometimes issue ID cards to their citizens in the U.S. The Catholic Church in Dallas started a similar program this spring to the one being rolled out in Baltimore.
“This is something that is working in other cities,” Pugh said.
However, North Carolina banned local governments from using such cards in 2015 after some law enforcement officials questioned whether they could be used to credibly identify someone.