Cincinnati, Ohio
Downtown Cincinnati. Credit: iStock

Heavy rain loomed on the horizon, but the crowd standing outside Woodward High School in Cincinnati, Ohio was unfazed, wearing smiles that could weather hurricanes. Showers wouldn’t drive them away. People had already waited hours for the ID drive to begin, some arriving before dawn, others camping overnight. The line started at the school’s double glass doors, wound around the entire building, and stretched out onto the street.

“It was incredible,” said Margaret Fox, director of Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati (MARCC), a nonprofit that has spent decades fighting on behalf of the city’s marginalized communities. “I cry each time because it’s kind of like a scene at Ellis Island. Men, women, and children. Babies in strollers.”

MARCC, with the help of Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio, sponsors the MARCC ID, an identification card rolled out last August that serves as valid identification for any Cincinnatian. While target populations for the ID include former felons and homeless individuals, most cardholders are undocumented immigrants hoping to insulate themselves from the rising xenophobic policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration.

For undocumented immigrants, living without identification is a dangerous prospect. A simple run-in with the police can initiate the deportation process, even for non-criminals. Since public offices and services in Cincinnati — law enforcement included — recognize the MARCC ID as valid identification, obtaining the ID curtails the risk of deportation.

Municipal IDs like the MARCC ID are a new tool cities are employing to defend the rights of the undocumented. “The MARCC ID does not allow any holder to obtain any services or benefits that are not available to the holder under federal, state, or local laws,” said Fox. The ID helps immigrants access those benefits.

MARCC was chosen to sponsor the program because it has the backing of hundreds of religious institutions in the region — many flush with immigrants. The nonprofit tapped Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio to operate and administer the program because they support and heavily invest in the city’s Hispanic community, which contains the bulk of the city’s undocumented population.

Cincinnati cannot repair a broken immigration system, nor can the city guarantee the safety of its estimated 20,000 undocumented immigrants. But by weaving undocumented immigrants into the city’s political fabric, the MARCC ID program reaffirms their existence within the city’s communal fabric. It offers a chance to live, work, and play — not without fear, but the closest thing to peace a city can offer in this political climate.

While immigrants flocked to Cincinnati in the 19th century, today just five percent of the population is foreign-born; nationwide, the rate tops thirteen percent. Local politicians echo this history, celebrating the city’s rich, German heritage. Meanwhile, public support for its more recent immigrant communities is far more muted, even though the burgeoning Hispanic population — primarily Mexicans and Guatemalans — has injected youth and labor into the region’s sluggish economy and stabilized the city’s long-term population loss.

The community is close-knit, but the immigrants are frequent targets of robbery because they are mostly paid in cash. “Within those communities you have very high victimization rates and very low reporting rates,” said Cincinnati police officer Richard Longworth, the department’s immigrant liaison.

Immigrants are often hesitant to report crimes when the threat of deportation is potentially just one minor traffic stop away. “If I can’t access your info and I don’t have an ID that I can trust or read, I can’t just write your ticket and move on,” said Longworth. “That’s when people are being brought to the [courthouse], so they can fingerprint them and confirm their identification. Once they’re there, that ball can start rolling into other things.”

Local police departments must notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) whenever they pick up an undocumented immigrant. ICE then asks the department to hold the individual until they can arrive, but honoring these “detainers” is not mandatory. The city of Cincinnati ignores such requests. For immigrants, acquiring valid identification stops this process before it can start.

Cincinnati’s immigrant communities understand this fact. They have spent years clamoring for identification, especially driver’s licenses. Some states permit undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, but after 9/11, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which squelched most of these programs. In the wake of this law’s passage, New Haven, Connecticut crafted the country’s first municipal ID program in 2007. While the ID does not convey driving privileges, law enforcement, health centers, schools, and many other institutions recognize the card as valid identification.

Before the existence of municipal IDs, city residents had to provide state- or federally-issued identification documents to open a bank account or receive basic services like water and sewage. All residents — including immigrants — pay the taxes that fund those services, but undocumented immigrants weren’t receiving their rightful cut. Municipal IDs have wrested control of the taxpayer’s identity from the state and feds, and handed it to the city.  

The tangible benefits conferred by the card only tell half the story. “For most people, an ID is just an ID. But for us, when you’re undocumented, it is huge,” said Flequer Vera, a formerly undocumented activist who played an integral role in establishing MARCC ID program in Cincinnati. “That sense of pride that you feel, that belonging that you feel is huge.”

Vera’s activism earned him an invitation to Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s Immigration Task Force, which was formed in 2014 to address the needs of the city’s immigrant communities. The task force highlighted the need for identification, prompting Vera and others to research existing municipal ID programs. Most are run by cities or counties, but the team quickly deemed a city-issued ID too costly and not secure enough to guarantee that a cardholder’s personal information wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The task force opted instead for a private municipal ID, one fashioned after Greensboro, North Carolina’s program. The non-profit FaithAction International House issues the card in Greensboro, but the city and its police department recognize it as valid identification. “This ID model is particularly an effective one for cities or small towns that may not have the financial means or the political will to do a municipal card,” said Rev. David Fraccaro, FaithAction’s executive director.

Cincinnati fits this mold. Historically a Republican stronghold, the city has veered to the left in past decades, though suburban Cincinnati remains a hotbed of conservatism, with a countywide sheriff — Jim Neil — who rejects the city’s practice of ignoring detainment requests from ICE.

With sheriffs like Neil, it’s no surprise that most immigrants remain wary of law enforcement. To combat this fear, Fraccaro invites law enforcement to the Greensboro ID drives. Officers explain that they have no jurisdiction enforcing federal immigration policy — their first priority is protecting the city’s residents. Building that trust benefits law enforcement, too. During the FaithAction ID’s first year in Greensboro, information from cardholders helped solve several cold cases.

Cincinnati’s City Council ratified an ordinance supporting the ID last spring, and over 1,100 people signed up for MARCC ID cards at the first two ID drives in August and October. Back then, Donald Trump was still a punchline, not a president. In the past few months, federal immigration officials have ramped up deportations, led by a commander-in-chief who launched his presidential ambitions by denigrating Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.” Anyone who is undocumented and, “in the judgment of an immigration officer, poses a risk to public safety or national security,” is at risk of being detained and deported. Even innocent bystanders during ICE raids are fair game. Amid this overhaul in immigration practices, MARCC cancelled its February ID drive.

ICE has not approached any municipal ID program and asked for cardholders’ information, but MARCC isn’t taking any chances. Out of an abundance of caution, the non-profit deleted all personal data, only retaining contracts that note the documents provided by the cardholder. Nothing traceable remains — no addresses, no names. Keeping the data is not worth the risk, said Fox, the MARCC director.

In the age of Trump, the best ICE deterrent is to flood municipal ID programs with additional cardholders, said Els de Graauw, a political science professor at Baruch College, CUNY who studies immigrant rights. “If everybody carries the card, then it becomes much harder to deduce who the card carrier is.” Some programs build their ranks by including museum and restaurant discounts to attract native-born residents.

Municipal IDs are not yet common, and even fewer of the programs are privately run like in Cincinnati. Most progressive metros instead opt to declare themselves “sanctuary cities,” a vague designation that typically means local law enforcement won’t comply with ICE detainers. However, after Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from such places, some cities — including Miami — reneged on earlier declarations. While the practicality of the president’s threat is unclear, it colors any attempt to protect undocumented immigrants. Issuing a privately-run municipal ID bypasses this political thicket. Cities can protect their undocumented immigrants without losing millions in federal funds.

Large cities see the card’s potential. Houston is starting a privately-run program, and Chicago officials have contacted MARCC director Fox for advice. “I think the beauty of Cincinnati’s immigration reform is that it has occurred and is in some ways more permanent reform than a city that declares itself a sanctuary city,” Fox said. “It’s more grassroots, but also it offers more services than cities that do not have an ID card.”

Privately-run municipal IDs are not a panacea. Small, plastic cards cannot amend decades of mistrust, nor are they a suitable long-term replacement for meaningful immigration reform. But verifying a person’s identity and indicating where they live can have a profound impact on an individual’s life, and it delivers a sharp rebuke to a xenophobic president who actively pursues immigrants’ erasure.

After a five-month hiatus, Catholic Charities held two ID drives in late March. They took place in a harshly-lit room on the 7th floor of a large, nondescript building in suburban Cincinnati. While the inaugural drive was punctured with joy and fanfare, these events were comparatively demure: seventeen people showed up for the first one, and around a hundred came to the second.

Every potential cardholder must sit through a presentation from a local police officer. At the second drive, Officer Lewis Arnold detailed their rights, how to respond to police questioning, and what a valid warrant looks like. Be wary of traveling into surrounding municipalities and counties, he said. Other area law enforcement could accept the MARCC ID in the future, but for now the card stops functioning at the city’s limits.

Most of the crowd was Hispanic. Young kids kept up a steady stream of Spanish throughout the talk, although the chatter dimmed whenever the translator spoke. The only moment of silence came at the end. Arnold closed his presentation with an invocation, with the translator in lockstep:

“God is not of fear.”

“Dios no es de miedo.”

“Fear is of the devil.”

“El miedo es del diablo.”

“So do not walk in fear…do not walk in fear.”

“No camines con miedo…no camines con miedo.”

Timothy Broderick

Follow Timothy on Twitter @broderick_timmy. Timothy Broderick is a freelance journalist based in Cincinnati, Ohio.