U.S. immigration officials plan to issue photo ID cards to immigrants in deportation proceedings in an effort to reduce paper use and help people keep up with required appointments and court hearings, officials said.
The proposal by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is still being developed as a pilot program, and it was not immediately clear how many the agency would issue. The cards will not be an official form of federal identification and will indicate that they are to be used by the Department of Homeland Security.
The idea is for immigrants to be able to access information about their cases online using a card instead of paper documents that are cumbersome and can fade over time, officials said. They said ICE officers could also check the cards in the field.
“Moving to a secure card will save the agency millions, free up resources and ensure that information is quickly available to DHS officials while reducing the agency’s FOIA backlog,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement, citing unfulfilled public requests about agency documents. Homeland Security receives more Freedom of Information Act requests than any other federal agency, according to government data, and many of those involve immigration records.
The proposal has triggered a number of questions about what the card can be used for and how secure it will be. Some fear the program could lead to the tracking of immigrants awaiting their day in immigration court, while others suggest the cards could be advertised by migrant smugglers to try to get others to make the dangerous trip north.
The Biden administration is seeking $10 million for the so-called ICE Secure Docket Card in a budget proposal for the next fiscal year. It was not immediately clear whether the money would cover the pilot or a broader program or when it would begin.
The administration has faced pressure as the number of migrants seeking to enter the country at the southwest border has increased. Border Patrol agents stopped migrants more than 1.1 million times from January to June, up nearly a third from the same period in 2021.
Many migrants are being turned away under COVID-19-related restrictions. But many are allowed in and are either detained while their cases work their way through the immigration courts or are released and required to check in periodically with ICE officers until a judge decides their cases.
Those most likely to be released in the United States are from countries where deportation under the public health order is complicated by cost, logistics or strained diplomatic relations, including Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
At shelters, bus stations and airports along the US-Mexico border, migrants carefully guard their papers in plastic folders. These are often the only documents they have to get past airport checkpoints to their final destinations in the United States. The papers that often have ears can be crucial to getting around.
An immigration case can take years, and the system can be confusing, especially for immigrants who speak little English and may have to work with a variety of government agencies, including ICE and US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which issue work permits and green cards. US immigration courts are overseen by the Department of Justice.
Gregory Z. Chen, senior director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said migrants have mistakenly gone to ICE offices instead of court for scheduled hearings that they then missed. He said as long as immigrants’ privacy is protected, the card can be useful.
“If ICE is going to use this new technology to enable non-citizens to check in with ICE, or to report information about their location and address, and then receive information about their case — where their court hearings might be, what claims might be for them to comply with the law – that would be a welcome approach, Chen said.
It was not clear whether Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration would accept the cards for airport travel or whether private businesses would consider them valid.
The US does not have a national photo ID card. Residents instead use a variety of cards to prove identification, including driver’s licenses, state ID cards, and consular ID cards. What constitutes a valid ID is often determined by the entity seeking to verify a person’s identity.
Talia Inlender, deputy director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles’ law school, said she was skeptical that using a card to access electronic documents would simplify the process for immigrants, especially those navigating the system without an attorney, questioning whether the card has technology that could be used to increase government surveillance of migrants.
But having an ID can be useful, especially for migrants who need to travel within the United States, Inlender said.
“Many people are fleeing persecution and torture in their countries. They don’t show up with government papers,” Inlender said. “Having some form of identification to be able to move through daily life has the potential to be a useful thing.”
That has some Republican lawmakers worried that the cards could lead more migrants to come to the United States or seek to access benefits for which they are not eligible. A group of 16 lawmakers sent a letter last week to ICE questioning the plan.
“The administration is now reportedly planning yet another reckless policy that will further exacerbate this ongoing crisis,” the letter said.