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Know Your Rights
Source: Gotham Gazette
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

No ID? No Cell Phone

The alleged crimes of Faisal Shahzad have led to stepped up security in Times Square and concern about terrorists in our midst. And now the actions of this one infamous immigrant have inspired legislation that many advocates believe could hurt the entire community.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer recently introduced bill that would require identification to buy prepaid cell phones. This comes just weeks after the arrest of Shahzad, the 30-year-old suspect in the recent Times Square terror plot who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. Shahzad allegedly used a prepaid cell phone to communicate with co-conspirators and purchase the Nissan Pathfinder that he attempted to turn into a car bomb.

Because they can be bought anonymously and are difficult to trace, prepaid phones are also a favorite among drug dealers and gang members. However, they are also a staple among new and undocumented immigrants who often lack identification or are hesitant to show it.

"While most Americans use pre-paid mobile devices lawfully, the anonymous nature of these devices gives too much cover to individuals looking to use them for deviant, dangerous means," Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican cosponsoring the bill, said in a statement.

Under the bill, if the customer purchases the cell phone in person, he or she must provide his name, birth date and home address, verified with a photo ID and two tax forms that are no older than 18 months. If the customer buys it online or over the phone, identity must be verified with a Social Security number, driver’s license number and bank account information.

Staying in Touch

This, of course, will do away with the anonymity that makes prepaid cell phones a lifeline for the 21 million Americans who do not have photo identification, including low-income families and the homeless — not to mention the 13 million or so undocumented immigrants or immigrants who have yet to receive citizenship. Many of these immigrants cherish prepaid cell phones as a way to conduct business, report crimes and emergencies, and of course, communicate with friends and family.

"This will have enormous impact on the everyday citizen," said Chris Calabrese, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Brenda Vicente, an NYU student who came to New York from Guatemala in 1994 to escape civil war, said her parents relied on prepaid cell phones to keep track of her and her younger brother. She said these phones also were necessary for keeping in touch with relatives.

Without these phones, "it would have been so difficult to communicate with each other — our family is dispersed throughout the nation," she said.

Raising the Price

Another key draw of prepaid cell phones is their affordability. Phones now cost as little as $10 with no monthly commitments or credit checks. The bill would require phone companies to keep a record of the sale for 18 months, an expensive measure that could result in substantial price increases.

"Our chief concern is that we think that this bill will limit access to prepaid service for those who need it most," said Sprint spokesman John Taylor, who said that the current method of purchasing prepaid cell phones keeps their cost down. He also expressed concern that many independent retailers without the resources to properly handle consumer information might choose to stop carrying prepaid phones altogether.

According to Taylor, Sprint is in talks with the senators and law enforcement officials to try to change the legislation so that it does not disadvantage consumers who depend on the affordability and accessibility of prepaid phones.

"We really, strongly disagree with the misperception that our prepaid customers are predisposed to wrongdoings," said Taylor.

Hanging Up on Immigrants?

Immigrant rights advocates have also reacted strongly to the legislation.

"It would be a bad strategy to disconnect all these undocumented immigrants," said Javier Valdes, a spokesman for Make the Road New York. "In many ways, it would prevent their assimilation."

City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez agreed that such a law would be hugely disadvantageous to citizens without proper ID. Oddly enough, the legislation asks for the same types of identification as an I-9, the form that immigrants fill out to verify their legal status for employment eligibility.

Advocates also expressed concern for immigrants’ safety. Sameed Ahmed, a spokesman for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, explained that those escaping abusive situations, such as domestic violence victims and trafficked workers, need access to anonymous forms of communication.

Schumer and Cornyn left calling cards out of their legislation, which so far does not have a House companion, but in an era where payphones are gradually becoming extinct, the omission is hardly enough to solve the problem. Plus calling cards do not provide the cardholder with a means to receive incoming calls, which could limit immigrants’ ability to seek employment.

"Increasingly, people are realizing that cell phones are not a luxury, they’re a necessity in our society," said Taylor, the Sprint spokesman. "A cell phone could mean a job interview and an end to unemployment."

Security vs. Privacy

Civil libertarians have also criticized the bill, saying that it infringes on basic privacy rights.

"One thing that the constitution guarantees is the right to speak anonymously," said Calabrese, the ACLU lawyer. "If you can’t make a cell phone call without divulging your identity, that implicates that right."

"I’ve had enough of Big Brother, already," said City Council member Daniel Dromm, who heads the council’s immigration committee.

Schumer is no stranger to stringent ID checks. In March, he and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham wrote in the Washington Post about what they see as the need to fix our "badly broken" immigration system and said they hoped to block undocumented immigrants from employment by requiring biometric Social Security cards.

Vicente compared the prepaid cell phone bill to the recent Arizona immigration law, of which Senator Schumer was a major critic.

"It just gets more and more difficult for new and undocumented immigrants to try and have a normal life," she said.