New York City Officials Defend Shielding Data of Undocumented Immigrants

Two Years ago, New Yorkers waited in line to apply for the New York City municipal identification cards on the first day they were available
Two Years ago, New Yorkers waited in line to apply for the New York City municipal identification cards on the first day they were available

Lawsuit seeks to retain information gathered by city’s ID-card program

New York City’s municipal identification program had its day in court on Thursday as two Staten Island lawmakers argued New York should not destroy applicants’ records—to protect undocumented immigrants—because it is detrimental to national security and public safety.

The lawsuit challenging the IDNYC program was brought by state Assemblyman Ronald Castorina Jr. and Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, both Republicans, in state Supreme Court on Staten Island. In early December, city officials said they would no longer retain documents of those who apply for the program, out of fear that President-elect Donald Trump could use them to deport undocumented immigrants. A state judge in December temporarily barred the city from destroying the records while the court considers the suit.

The program, which began in 2015, was aimed at increasing access to city services like schools and libraries, especially among the city’s estimated half a million undocumented immigrants. There are now nearly one million cardholders.

 The two lawmakers argue that destroying the records violates the state’s Freedom of Information Act. City officials say that in destroying records like passports or birth certificates, they were following the city law that established the program. But most of Thursday’s hearing, during which several city officials testified, focused not on public record-keeping rules but on wide-ranging topics from terrorism to bank fraud.

“This is an issue that involves the blood of Americans,” Mr. Castorina testified. A terrorist could use the city ID to open a bank account, he added.

Lawyers representing the lawmakers said the law violated the U.S. Patriot Act. Attorney Ravi Batra wondered if the law took into account public safety and national security, “especially when we had 9/11 right here?”

Mr. Batra also called the law’s provision to destroy data at the end of 2016 “a political fail-safe.” He cited a news report in which Democratic City Councilman Carlos Menchaca said, “In case a Tea Party Republican comes into office and says, ‘We want all of the data from all of the municipal ID programs in the country,’ we’re going to take the data.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Menchaca didn’t reply to a request for comment on Thursday.

Lawyers for the city said it had strenuous vetting policies in place, including a team of fraud investigators who denied some applications.

“The tools we’ve given our staff are the same tools the TSA has,” testified Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks, referring to the Transportation Security Administration.

Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said that while the city was no longer keeping copies of documents like passports or birth certificates, it maintained applications and photos.

“We’re not purging the entire database,” she said.

John Miller, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, said a municipal ID wouldn’t benefit a terrorist. “I hope every terrorist opens a bank account and uses it during the planning and execution of their plot,” he said, adding that it would help investigators.

Mr. Castorina later called the comment “outrageously disingenuous.”

In terms of the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Batra, the lawyer, said state and federal laws trump local laws. “No pun intended,” he added.

But Mr. Banks said the Freedom of Information Act isn’t unfettered access, and some information isn’t available because of privacy and confidentiality concerns. This would mean none of the personal information the program collects would be available under the law anyway, he said.

“There’s nothing that’s left,” he added.

The hearing is expected to continue with more witnesses, including a banking expert, but the judge hasn’t yet set a date for that.

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