NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – On the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, Bianey Garcia walked to her office in Queens, New York, numb from shock and reeling from the night before.
“I felt like my dreams, my everything, had gone,” she said.
Waking to the news of Donald Trump’s election victory, Garcia, a 27-year-old transgender woman originally from Mexico, paced “like the walking dead” to her desk at Make the Road, New York’s largest immigrant organization.
More than a million of the country’s estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants live in the city and its suburbs, many having worked there for decades and built families on the way.
That morning, they woke to a new reality: a Trump presidency that pledged to rapidly deport 2 to 3 million people living in the country without visas.
In her offices below the elevated tracks of the No. 7 train – the so-called “Immigrant Express” across Queens, where nearly half of residents are foreign born – Garcia saw chaos.
She recalled tearful children refusing to leave for class, afraid of being bullied at school or losing parents to deportation before they got home.
Yet amid the palpable fear, Garcia said nobody had yet thought to ask one key question:
What about the reams of records the undocumented had all handed to the city in more optimistic times: almost a million personal documents that today risk leading federal immigration forces right back to their front doors.
The documents were the underpinning of an ambitious city identity card system – IDNYC – set up by the mayor in 2015 with the express aim of helping those who fell under the radar.
Now that data might come back to bite.
The program had launched with the very aim of helping those it might now ensnare.
People like Garcia, an undocumented city dweller who struggled to get a formal ID, and who could use the mayor’s parallel identity card system to get a foothold in the city.
For the first time, immigrants without visas could use IDNYC to open bank accounts, sign leases and access city services – in short marginalized New Yorkers could creep “out of the shadows”.
New York City duly photocopied and scanned some 900,000 documents in the enrollment process, according to City Hall.
On a server in an undisclosed location in New York, the city’s administration collected digital copies of 387,000 foreign passports, 346,000 driving licenses, and thousands of birth certificates, visas, military photo ID cards, consular documents, and work permits.
New York’s ID card initiative is part of a global wave of documenting the world’s undocumented, as millions of people like Garcia entered the sort of digital databases that could now expose them in ways they had never anticipated.
One in eight city residents owns an IDNYC – from Mayor Bill de Blasio to the army of homeless veterans on its streets.
Immigrants make up more than half of the now 1.2 million card holders, according to an official survey in 2016.
And they fear that documents once willingly given could now be turned against them in Trump’s “America First” presidency.
Official figures show immigration arrests have already risen more than 40 percent under Trump – with raids hitting homes, schools, hospitals and court houses.
Federal data show 2,600 people have been arrested in New York City in the last year (seven each day) amid crackdowns that focus on “Sanctuary Cities”, immigrant-friendly, liberal hubs such as New York, which rely on incomers to prosper and grow.
Of those arrested, a quarter had no criminal record, marking a break from previous policy and spreading fear in a city where 37 percent are foreign born.
Advocates of civil liberties say the cache of documents amounts to a “deportation directory”, vulnerable to hacks and open to seizure by agents of the Trump government.
SAFE WITH US
Mayor De Blasio has repeatedly vowed to protect the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants and said the city would not turn over the information if requested.
“We did not know Donald Trump would be elected president,” De Blasio told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at City Hall.
“We worked under the world we knew then, which there was no such prospect of any such problem, based on what we knew. We worked very closely with the New York Police Department to figure out a secure card, and figure out what would be the right, secure steps to take.”
De Blasio’s team had from the get-go built in an option to delete all records by the end of 2016, but a duo of Trump-allied Republicans were one step ahead and launched a lawsuit to stop the records being erased, just after Trump won office.
Now holders of the card fear their data could undo them.
“After the Trump election, there’s not many people who want to have the card,” said Garcia, whose office helped design the program. “The only thing we can do is destroy that information and protect our community.”
NO CARD, NO LIFE
An identity card is key to daily life in the United States, if not a legal requirement.
Without one, many illegal immigrants do not use city services or access benefits for fear of stirring attention, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
They also suffer more crime, and fears of police questions over their status mean many do not report it, said Betsy Plum, of the New York Immigration Coalition charity.
Dubbed “Walking ATMs”, the undocumented are also more likely to be robbed as their lack of access to a bank means some are known to carry big sums of cash.
Garcia wanted a card so as to better belong in a city that she has made her home.
“I decided to emigrate to United States when I was 15 because, back in my country, I was a gay boy and I was dreaming of being a trans person,” said Garcia, whose Mexican passport listed her gender as male.
Garcia was trafficked into the country by an American who forced her to have sex with men for money, she said. When she refused, he threatened to report her for deportation.
After 7 months, she escaped slavery, to live in Queens, an epicenter for New York’s Hispanic community.
Yet, Garcia lacked both a legal visa that would allow her to work and a recognized ID card that would let her legally lease an apartment, open a bank account, or access public hospitals.
She also knew that minor infractions – drinking in public or riding a bike on the sidewalk – that would likely only earn a small fine for someone who could proffer a recognized ID card could earn her an arrest.
So day by day, she avoided police.
But her worst fears were confirmed when, aged 19, she was attacked by a man calling her “a fucking faggot, a fucking whore, a fucking undocumented (immigrant).”
When she flagged down a police car for help, a second onslaught began as Garcia had little English and no ID.
Suspicions were raised, questions asked.
”I didn’t have the opportunity to defend myself,” she said.
She spent 18 months in New York’s Rikers Island prison, in an all-male facility, where she was threatened with deportation, and twice attempted suicide.
“The Latino community doesn’t feel safe going to the police because they are afraid of not having documents, of being arrested, of being killed by the police,” said Garcia. “That’s why the IDNYC was created.”
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Before the IDNYC was invented, undocumented immigrants had a range of other cards but lacked a common, widely accepted identity document that did not single them out as foreign.
At its 2015 launch, more than three times the predicted number signed up for the IDNYC, according to the mayor’s office.
Cardholders could use 12 banks and credit unions, access hospitals and libraries, and avoid a host of daily document struggles, such as when meeting teachers at their children’s school.
Its popularity among native New Yorkers – keen on advertised perks such as free zoo and museum entry – also ensured the card was widely held and carried no stamp of shame, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA).
“One of the ways we’ve looked at this card is: how do you make the life of every New Yorker much easier? How can you create one key to all the different ways you need to access the city,” said acting MOIA Commissioner Bitta Mostofi.
Garcia, who runs a support group for transgender women, said for many, it is also the first ID that lets them decide their gender.
“The first day that it came and I used it, I felt more safe,” she said. “As ‘Bianey Garcia, New Yorker’ it means that I am here. I am a part of this big city. I‘m a trans woman. I‘m so proud of it.”
More than a dozen U.S. cities – including Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas and Boston – are considering their own municipal identity cards, and are looking for guidance from New York.
Some continue to propose databases to rival the one New York is desperate to delete, and privacy campaigners say it is time to learn lessons.
De Blasio has been frustrated in his desire to erase the records by the Republican lawsuit filed a year ago.
State lawmakers Nicole Malliotakis and Ron Castorina Jr. argue that killing the data would break the city’s public records laws and hinder law enforcement.
Both said in interviews their aim was not to hand records over in bulk to immigration officials, but that data should be accessible in the event of terrorism, crime, or fraud.
This includes making the records available to ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that polices immigration, said Malliotakis.
“We can never forget what occurred on Sept.11,” said Malliotakis, De Blasio’s defeated rival in November’s mayoral election. “We need to be proactive and not reactive.”
De Blasio, a progressive liberal who has positioned himself as one of the most vocal critics of Trump, has made the IDNYC a signature pro-immigrant policy.
He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he would delete records as soon as the court case is resolved.
As of Dec. 2016, IDNYC has stopped storing the records of new applicants.
“People learn from experiences,” he said. “We learned that we did not need to keep them as back up.”
But New York-based migrant charities said de Blasio’s team should have listened earlier, that it acted with arrogance in rolling out an ambitious plan when few understood the risks.
Immigrant rights groups, city politicians, and the NYCLU had all cautioned in 2014 that retaining data risked fuelling an immigration crackdown, should a nativist regime come to power.
“We are seeing the nightmare scenario … that someone would file a lawsuit or create some kind of barrier to the city deleting these records,” Johanna Miller, advocacy director at NYCLU, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Miller said the only way to keep records safe was not collect them in the first place.
Some documents are riskier than others.
Long expired passports ring instant alarm bells as they may single out immigrants likely to have overstayed their visas.
NYCLU, the World Privacy Forum, immigrant charity Families for Freedom, and New York City Councilman Alan Maisel – all say they had raised fears that an anti-immigration regime could be elected and thereby make those records vulnerable.
New York was alone in 10 U.S. ID card programs – including San Francisco and neighboring Newark, New Jersey – in storing applicants’ personal data, according to a report by the charity The Center for Popular Democracy in 2015.
Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University said cities can protect their databases from hacks but have less defense against ICE’s “very expansive” powers to subpoena documents.
“We warned and warned. I remember cautioning against the collection of these records and warned that the data would eventually be misused politically,” said Pam Dixon of World Privacy Forum, a research group on privacy and technology.
“We were told this kill switch was going to be put in and this would save everything. But we have to understand that politics change.”
FEAR AND “MISINFORMATION”
The city included the ‘kill switch’ clause specifically anticipating the possibility of a conservative Republican winning the 2016 presidential election, a city councilman told Reuters in 2015.
In the window of weeks between Trump’s election and the republican lawsuit, filed on Dec. 5, 2016, City Hall said it held a security review, required by law, to decide if records could safely be deleted.
The review found that records no longer needed to be retained and the city received permission from its human resources team, which stored the data, to erase them.
That permission arrived on Dec. 7, two days after the lawsuit was filed, according to court documents.
Records have now been trapped in legal limbo for a year – a judge ruled in favor of the mayor in April only for the Republicans to file a new lawsuit that month.
The program states applicant information will not be shared with other government agencies or third parties except in response to a subpoena or warrant granted by a judge.
Since the card was launched, the city has given law enforcement agents personal IDNYC data for 13 people, according to the MOIA. The City said it has received no such requests from federal immigration enforcement.
As Trump won the election, De Blasio stressed he wanted to make undocumented people feel at home in his city, long famous for welcoming outsiders “with open arms”.
He had already scaled back cooperation between police and immigration authorities, joining dozens of locales, including Los Angeles and Chicago, in a growing “sanctuary” movement.
This has set it on a collision course with Trump, who has issued an executive order slashing funding to jurisdictions that refuse to share information with U.S. immigration authorities.
Chicago and San Francisco have challenged its legality.
And in September, immigration authorities unleashed ‘Operation Safe Cities’ – the first of a raft of raids explicitly targetting cities that frustrate immigration officers.
In New York, that four-day raid netted 45 arrests, with ICE thereafter issuing almost weekly “Enforcement and Removal” statements, each listing dozens of arrests in the city.
Unlike raids of old, such as mass busts on factories employing undocumented workers, the arrests are “intelligence driven”, said ICE, using analysis of government records and personal data to pinpoint individuals.
“We know exactly who we’re going to arrest and where we’re going to arrest them,” said Thomas Homan, the ICE deputy director, at a briefing in December, adding that the agency targets criminals who pose a threat to public safety.
Amid the confusion of a fast-moving political world, Garcia said she would still urge her shaken friends to sign up for a card that can help them become part of their new home.
After all, what other option is there?
“There is a lot of people saying I want this card but I‘m afraid. What can we do? We have no other choice but to have an ID.”
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