BERKELEY — Maria is an engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley. She's smart, she's witty, and she's driven. But when her sister disappeared in early September, she feared doing anything.

"I can't report things to the police," she said. "I'm afraid to. I'm afraid they would deport me."

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a plan Nov. 14 to provide identification cards to illegal immigrants, transgender people and other residents who may be unable or unwilling to get a state-issued driver's license. Mayor Gavin Newsom has said he intends to ratify the program.

For clue on how such a program might work, Maria, who asked that her real name not be used, and an estimated 2.4 million other undocumented immigrants in California can look to New Haven, Conn.

The New Haven municipal ID system went into effect at the end of July.

"We would have considered this program successful if we had sold 5,000 of these cards in the first year, and we've already sold 3,700 in the first two months," said Kica Matos, community services administrator for New Haven. "This program is absolutely successful."

San Francisco's proposal, approved by a 10-1 vote, puts the issue in the national spotlight and adds pressure on neighboring cities, including Oakland, to pass similar legislation.

The new identification card, expected to roll out in August 2008, will offer immigrants an alternative to consulate-issued IDs known as matricula consular.


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The San Francisco program will charge adults $15 for each card and $5 for children to defray costs, which are expected to run between $423,000 and $1.1 million during the first year.

To be eligible, residents would have to produce an existing photo ID, such as a passport or foreign driver's license, as well as a recent utility bill or bank statement. The recipients cannot use the IDs to drive; they would still need a state driver's license.

Government agencies and non-profit groups that receive city funds would be required to accept the cards as valid identification and proof of residency except for hiring or other areas where doing so conflicts with federal or state laws.

The cards, available to the city's 750,000 residents, are intended for undocumented residents who are ineligible for driver's licenses, seniors who no longer drive and transgender people whose driver's licenses no longer reflect their appearances.

"We think it's important for everyone to have access to the ID," said Pilar Schiavo, legislative aide to San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who introduced the ID card concept. "It's especially important for undocumented immigrants — folks who are targeted for crime and who are unlikely to report the incident because they do not have ID.

"Criminals are left free to terrorize the community," she added. "This will finally allow immigrants to report these crimes."

Matos said New Haven's ID serves multiple purposes to attract different groups of users.

"The card has a debit chip that you can load up to $150, allowing you to pay for parking garages, parking meters, and even coffee," she said. "It also has a strip on the back that acts as a library card."

The proposed ID in San Francisco goes further, with news reports that many banks in the city are signaling their willingness to use the municipal ID to set up accounts.

John Lugo, an organizer for Unidad Latino, a grassroots group that pushes for immigrants' rights, said the IDs, with their access to city services, help immigrants feel like a part of the community.

"You would have to spend a lot of time in jail if you could not give the police identification," he said. "People said they didn't feel safe with the police, or welcome in New Haven."

And since immigrants are unable to get a bank account without a valid ID, Lugo said this left them in serious danger.

"People would also attack immigrants as walking ATM machines," he said.

Now, however, Lugo said people feel as though they can trust the police. "The city ID has made a lot of difference," he added. 

San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd opposed the measure, criticizing its

$1.07 million to $2.86 million price tag in the first three years.

And opposition groups to the municipal IDs have already attempted to gather information about participating residents, advocates said.

"People who were against this did not want to acknowledge the existence of these people," said the Rev. James Manship, pastor of New Haven's St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church.

Both the proposed San Francisco and current New Haven municipal IDs are available to all city residents, keeping them from becoming a scarlet letter for undocumented residents.

"On the application for the ID, they ask for a name and they have a check-mark box for whether or not they showed a photo ID and proof of residence," Manship said. "There's nothing that shows whether or not they're legal immigrants."

He added, "The general order, coupled with the municipal IDs, makes people feel as though they are residents of this community."

San Francisco already has ordinances that prohibit police from being proactive about immigration status.

The new ID, Schiavo said, allow police to see a legitimate identification.

Renee Saucedo of the La Rassa Center in San Francisco agreed.

"It's something that's basic for people to be able to function day to day," she said.

Still, Maria is more concerned about her missing sister, whom she may never find again, and certainly not without the help of the local police.

Fighting tears, she raised her hands in the air.

"It's crazy," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ian Sherr is a student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.