Local

Companies respond to immigrants' ID needs

Wilbert Nava dropped $50 this year for a photo ID that he knew the government wouldn't recognize.

The 22-year-old University of South Carolina student from Lancaster knew the plastic card wouldn't allow him to drive or file official papers. But he bought it anyway because, as an illegal immigrant, “I don't have other options.”

“I thought, well, maybe it'll work.”

Since a change in state law in 2006, illegal immigrants can't get government-issued driver's licenses without a Social Security number or visa in North Carolina. They haven't been able to get them in South Carolina since 2002. And now, more and more immigrants who did get licenses in the past are finding themselves without valid ID as their licenses expire.

That's especially alarming for immigrants in the Charlotte region, where four counties have law enforcement partnerships with federal immigration officials. Without ID, any minor traffic stop could lead to automatic deportation.

That's prompted many people like Nava to seek whatever kind of ID they can get, local immigrant advocates say, and enterprising companies have responded.

Even though these companies don't claim to be official, advocates worry that they misrepresent what the IDs can be used for. They said people end up spending $20 to more than $140 for what they later find to be a useless piece of plastic.“You have desperate people in desperate times,” said Stacey Bonilla, whose business offers translations and other services for immigrants. “These sharks pop up, ‘Hey, I can help you,' and they don't. They're everywhere.”

Waste of money?

Bonilla said the scariest thing is that some immigrants believe the IDs are just as good as a license and end up getting deported after they're pulled over.

“There's a reason that those IDs look so similar to the driver's license,” said Angeles Ortega Moore, director of the Latin American Coalition. “They do it so people get confused.”

Ortega Moore questioned the way Greenville, S.C.-based Numedia International LLC recently advertised its services in a local Spanish newspaper. The company, which charges $60 for a laminated ID with a hologram (plus $20 for picture and notary fees), has set up at flea markets around the region in the past couple of months.

The ad says people have used the ID to cash checks, look for jobs, get a video store membership, travel by train or bus, get a fishing or marriage license, get into clubs, and go to a health clinic or emergency room.

“This card is not going to be accepted by the police, by a bank, it's not going to be accepted by anybody,” Ortega Moore said. “So if people get it, they're just wasting their money.”

Rafael Prieto, editor of Mi Gente newspaper, echoed Ortega Moore's sentiments in an editorial explaining why he decided not to print Numedia's ad.

Numedia owner Keith Jackson said his company doesn't make any promises about who will accept the card.

“It doesn't work in all cases but we wouldn't be selling them if it didn't work for something,” Jackson said.

Verifying identities

While advocates agreed that immigrants need some kind of current ID, without official regulations they said there's no way to be sure that private companies actually verify identity.

“Yeah the ID looks pretty, but who's telling me Carlos is Carlos?” asked Sal Estrada, board chairman of the nonprofit Multi-Cultural Information Center in Lancaster, S.C.

Estrada said the center is working with Founders Federal Credit Union to develop its own unofficial ID that local officials could trust for that verification.

To get one, illegal immigrants would have to submit all the documents they would need to open an account at the credit union, including a government-issued photo ID, which could be from their native country or an expired U.S. license.

They'll also have their fingerprints scanned and stored in a computer database.

Sgt. Bryan Miller of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's International Relations Unit, cautioned immigrants to know the limitations of an unofficial ID, but recommended having a current photo ID in case of emergency.

“If somebody's in a wreck, if they're injured, it's great to have something,” Miller said. “It might give us a starting point to be able to find relatives or friends.”

Lancaster County Manager Steve Willis said he thought the county police might be able to use the Center's ID for things that don't require legal verification, such as giving a witness statement to police or applying for a building permit.

“We know there has been some research done to verify the person's identity, address. It's something that we can put some trust and faith in,” Willis said. “It's certainly better than the alternative, which is pretty much just nothing at all.”

Wilbert Nava dropped $50 this year for a photo ID that he knew the government wouldn't recognize.

The 22-year-old University of South Carolina student from Lancaster knew the plastic card wouldn't allow him to drive or file official papers. But he bought it anyway because, as an illegal immigrant, “I don't have other options.”

“I thought, well, maybe it'll work.”

Since a change in state law in 2006, illegal immigrants can't get government-issued driver's licenses without a Social Security number or visa in North Carolina. They haven't been able to get them in South Carolina since 2002. And now, more and more immigrants who did get licenses in the past are finding themselves without valid ID as their licenses expire.

That's especially alarming for immigrants in the Charlotte region, where four counties have law enforcement partnerships with federal immigration officials. Without ID, any minor traffic stop could lead to automatic deportation.

That's prompted many people like Nava to seek whatever kind of ID they can get, local immigrant advocates say, and enterprising companies have responded.

Even though these companies don't claim to be official, advocates worry that they misrepresent what the IDs can be used for. They said people end up spending $20 to more than $140 for what they later find to be a useless piece of plastic.“You have desperate people in desperate times,” said Stacey Bonilla, whose business offers translations and other services for immigrants. “These sharks pop up, ‘Hey, I can help you,' and they don't. They're everywhere.”

Waste of money?

Bonilla said the scariest thing is that some immigrants believe the IDs are just as good as a license and end up getting deported after they're pulled over.

“There's a reason that those IDs look so similar to the driver's license,” said Angeles Ortega Moore, director of the Latin American Coalition. “They do it so people get confused.”

Ortega Moore questioned the way Greenville, S.C.-based Numedia International LLC recently advertised its services in a local Spanish newspaper. The company, which charges $60 for a laminated ID with a hologram (plus $20 for picture and notary fees), has set up at flea markets around the region in the past couple of months.

The ad says people have used the ID to cash checks, look for jobs, get a video store membership, travel by train or bus, get a fishing or marriage license, get into clubs, and go to a health clinic or emergency room.

“This card is not going to be accepted by the police, by a bank, it's not going to be accepted by anybody,” Ortega Moore said. “So if people get it, they're just wasting their money.”

Rafael Prieto, editor of Mi Gente newspaper, echoed Ortega Moore's sentiments in an editorial explaining why he decided not to print Numedia's ad.

Numedia owner Keith Jackson said his company doesn't make any promises about who will accept the card.

“It doesn't work in all cases but we wouldn't be selling them if it didn't work for something,” Jackson said.

Verifying identities

While advocates agreed that immigrants need some kind of current ID, without official regulations they said there's no way to be sure that private companies actually verify identity.

“Yeah the ID looks pretty, but who's telling me Carlos is Carlos?” asked Sal Estrada, board chairman of the nonprofit Multi-Cultural Information Center in Lancaster, S.C.

Estrada said the center is working with Founders Federal Credit Union to develop its own unofficial ID that local officials could trust for that verification.

To get one, illegal immigrants would have to submit all the documents they would need to open an account at the credit union, including a government-issued photo ID, which could be from their native country or an expired U.S. license.

They'll also have their fingerprints scanned and stored in a computer database.

Sgt. Bryan Miller of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's International Relations Unit, cautioned immigrants to know the limitations of an unofficial ID, but recommended having a current photo ID in case of emergency.

“If somebody's in a wreck, if they're injured, it's great to have something,” Miller said. “It might give us a starting point to be able to find relatives or friends.”

Lancaster County Manager Steve Willis said he thought the county police might be able to use the Center's ID for things that don't require legal verification, such as giving a witness statement to police or applying for a building permit.

“We know there has been some research done to verify the person's identity, address. It's something that we can put some trust and faith in,” Willis said. “It's certainly better than the alternative, which is pretty much just nothing at all.”

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