The City of Austin is about to become the epicenter of America’s immigration debate.

The Austin City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to study the idea of issuing municipal identification cards, according to Austin-based ABC News affiliate KVUE-TV. Proponents say the plan would enable immigrants and other vulnerable populations to access city services and get jobs more easily. Critics of the proposal, largely aligned with the Republican tea parties, say city ID cards are just another way for liberals to purchase votes and goodwill by using tax dollars to give free things to people they call “illegal,” although federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving welfare assistance.

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The proposal is a first for the state of Texas, and could see the state’s capital in direct conflict with state leaders, putting Austin on a collision course with the staunchly anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies put forward by Governor Rick Perry and his replacement/protégé, Attorney General Greg Abbott. We should know more about the plan by December, when the city manager reports the findings of a study to the council.

The idea for Austin’s municipal ID cards came from a similar system that’s up and running in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, New Haven and others. It takes advantage of the fact that federal law allows cities to issue identification cards regardless of immigration status or other criteria often required for state and federal ID cards.

It’s not just for undocumented immigrants, either. City IDs also allow houseless people and transgender people to access city services without listing a home address or needing to take on a court battle to change one’s gender identification on their government ID cards.

“Without the right form of ID you may not be able to open a bank account or even cash a check, see a doctor at a hospital, register your child for school, apply for public benefits, file a complaint with the police department, borrow a book from a library, vote in an election, or even collect a package from the post office,” the Center for Popular Democracy, a major supporter of city ID programs, explained in a recent study. “Ironically, the very people who are most in need of such basic services are also those who have the most difficulty obtaining the proof of identity that will allow them to access those services.”

The Austin council’s unanimous vote on Thursday morning could not contrast more with Gov. Perry’s recent announcement that he will spend over $38 million in Texas taxpayers’ “emergency funds” to deploy National Guard soldiers along the Mexican border, ostensibly to protect the people of his state from the threat of violence by people attempting to enter the U.S. In using the immigration debate to posture for a likely presidential run. Perry has drawn a sharp contrast between the state’s Republican and Democratic parties, and between Austin and the rest of Texas.

Drawing an even greater contrast is Perry’s chosen successor, Attorney General Abbott, who feels the current governor has not gone far enough. Abbott has proposed an additional $300 million in spending on border security, even though violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border is down significantly in recent years. His opponent, Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis, has proposed spending emergency funds on more Texas DPS agents along the border instead of National Guard soldiers. She’s also suggested funding charitable groups that help meet undocumented immigrants’ basic human needs, and asking for additional immigration judges so that immigrants picked up by the authorities get a hearing as fast as possible — instead of languishing in federal detention centers, sometimes built by private companies inside warehouses, for months at a time as many currently do.

“The main purpose of the municipal ID is to give some validity to who you are,” Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole told KVUE-TV. “This would be an important item for the city of Austin because we have so many people that need a form of identification because without it they can’t receive health services, they can’t bank, they can’t see their children in schools.”

Update: Texas Bankers Association warns that city ID cards don’t qualify for checking accounts

Hours after the Austin council’s vote to study city ID cards, J. Eric T. Sandberg, Jr., president and CEO of the Texas Bankers Association, sent a letter warning that requirements in federal law prohibit city ID cards from being used to open checking accounts. Sources said that members of the council were surprised by this revelation.

“A person who is attempting to open a bank account that is not a citizen must provide a passport, alien identification card or other official document evidencing nationality or residence,” they wrote. “There are also new regulations from the Internal Revenue Service to identify and report on non-resident customers. Further, if a bank employee believes that a bank customer is in some way violating federal law they must complete a Suspicious Activity Report to be sent to federal banking and law enforcement agencies.”

In other words, applying for a checking account with a city ID and no legal proof of residency could result in a police report getting filed — the last thing any undocumented immigrant wants.

“Texas bankers share the concerns of the Council about the need to reach out to the un-banked and the vulnerability of many of our residents to less than scrupulous financial service providers,” the TBA added. “Unfortunately, current federal law does not allow for us to bank undocumented citizens.”

They went on to say that the Austin City Council should include state and federal banking regulators in their discussions about the city ID.

Watch KVUE’s coverage below:


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Featured photo: Flickr user Sasha Kimel, creative commons licensed.

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