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L.A. to consider multi-use library cards for illegal immigrants

The cards, under study now, would provide a form of identification for those without driver's licenses and could be used to open bank accounts, transfer funds and access cash.

September 10, 2012|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • A sample San Francisco city identifcation card.
A sample San Francisco city identifcation card. ( )

Los Angeles officials are considering a plan to turn the library card into a form of identification that the city's large illegal immigrant population could use to open bank accounts and access an array of city services.

The City Council last month voted unanimously to study the plan, which would have Los Angeles join the growing number of cities across the nation that offer various forms of identification to undocumented workers and others who cannot get driver's licenses because of their immigration status.

Although L.A.'s plan would not be as sweeping as those adopted by cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond, it would be a major step in serving the estimated 300,000 residents who don't have bank accounts or debit cards.

The ID card would include a user's name, address and a photograph, and would be issued through the city's libraries. The city would partner with a private vendor to set up bank accounts for those who want to use the library ID as a debit card. Banks generally require official identification to open an account.

But anyone able to provide proof of L.A. residency would be eligible for the library card, said Councilman Richard Alarcon, who proposed the concept. Banking services would include direct deposit, international and domestic money transfers and the debit function.

Alarcon said that in his Northeast Valley district, some immigrants who don't use banks end up being gouged by payday lenders or robbed if they keep large sums of cash on hand.

"They can be scammed and taken advantage of," Alarcon said. "This will help end that."

The cards would not be a substitute for driver's licenses and would not provide any protection from deportation by federal immigration authorities. And they would come with a cost. Applicants would pay a fee of about $15 to $20 for the card and then would be able to both deposit and withdraw money through a network of ATMs at local grocery stores and shopping malls. There could also be a monthly fee of up to $2.99.

The plan could face opposition, as it has in other cities. Ira Mehlman, communications director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said such cards can be exploited. He also said they encourage illegal immigration.

"Cities should not be in the business of making it easier for people to violate federal law even if they don't pose a security risk," he said.

L.A.'s proposed card would serve primarily as a debit card with library privileges and might not be accepted by some banks as a form of identification, said Robert Sainz, a community development manager.

It wouldn't be as useful as San Francisco's City ID card, accepted by most city banks, airlines and local businesses. The San Francisco card also lists a user's medical conditions and an emergency contact, said Karen Hong Yee, director of the San Francisco County clerk's office.

New Haven, Conn., has been providing city ID cards to residents for more than five years, also with the intent of helping the poor and immigrants gain access to banking services. Oakland is contracting with SF Global, an L.A.-based company that operates prepaid banking systems.

Oakland's cards will cost $15 and may include a monthly fee of $1.99, said Arturo Sanchez, a deputy city administrator. The program pays for itself, he said. With a population of 400,000, Oakland sees it as an official ID card and a way of helping undocumented immigrants in dealing with police, not just banks, Sanchez said.

None have linked their cards to a city's library system. Sanchez called the concept "unique."

Alarcon said it would help promote "financial literacy" among immigrants. "We test students all the time on academic ability," he said. "But we don't determine if they are capable of handling their financial affairs. The foreclosure crisis demonstrated that there are a lot of people who are not."

Some banks accept foreign government-issued identification such as the Mexican Matricular Consular to open accounts for immigrants regardless of their legal status. But immigrants often are hesitant to take that step, choosing instead to turn to payday lenders and check-cashing outlets.

A 2010 Pew Health Group report estimated that 300,000 people in Los Angeles don't have a bank account. Nearly 70% are foreign born, earning between $10,000 and $15,000 a year and have been in the United States, on average, about 14 years.

Gustavo Martin, 32, a Pacoima mechanic, said he would be interested in the cards.

On payday, he goes to Bronco Check Cashing in Pacoima, its bright yellow, hand-painted sign drawing neighborhood workers who like its convenience. He pays $5.50 in fees to cash his $317 weekly paycheck, he said.

"It's safe, then OK,'' he said, his faded jeans smeared with grease. Then he smiled broadly: "My son likes 'Harry Potter.' "

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