Published in San Francisco Chronicle, July 26, 2011

Oakland leaders once touted a municipal identification card as a solution to an array of issues faced by undocumented immigrants and others in society’s margins.

The undocumented would have an identity card, transgender people would be able to prove who they are without a specified gender, and the urban poor would have a debit card.

The more functions that were put in, city leaders said, the less one group would be isolated by using it.

But nearly two years after plans for the multipurpose card were authorized by the City Council and three years after discussions began, the card remains far from reality. The debit card portion in particular has proved so complex and problematic that it threatens to stall the entire program.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who has been one of the card’s biggest proponents along with Mayor Jean Quan. “We’ve been working on this for three years now, and here we are with no cards of any kind.”

De La Fuente wants to put on hold the idea of putting a debit function into the card so that the rest of the program could move along. The council will discuss that plan tonight.

De La Fuente’s plan would have one main obstacle: cost. The debit idea, along with fees, was intended to help finance the program so that the cards wouldn’t cost the city a cent.

But without a debit card, the city would have to pay “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, said Elias Enciso, director of Los Angeles-based SF Mexico Services, which won the contract for the identification card.

De La Fuente said cardholders may have to bear the burden of the costs, not the city. Instead of paying, say, $30 for a card, they may have to pay $100, he said.

“It might cost more to the person, but that’s the way it goes,” he said. The card would have to be “cost-neutral for the city.”

City staff’s main concern with the debit card is whether SF Mexico Services and its partner bank, Central National Bank and Trust of Enid (Oklahoma), have the financial resources and industry reputation to cover “fraud, theft market downturns and other problems that could jeopardize cardholder funds.”

To evaluate that, the city would probably need to hire a consultant at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000, according to city staff.

Immigrant advocacy groups say the lack of an identity card has many repercussions.

Check cashers and remittance businesses charge higher fees. Banks won’t open a new account. Most important, they say communities are less safe.

Residents are afraid to call police if they believe that calling 911 might result in their deportation, said Manuel Arias, 73, an Oakland resident who has been fighting for the issue as part of Oakland Community Organizations.

Arias himself is a U.S. citizen, but said it was important for the larger Latino community. He said it’s vital that residents be able to identify themselves quickly to police.

“Our community members who don’t have an ID, they don’t really care about a debit card,” he said. “That can be done later.”