NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - When Pilar Vasquez, a local resident, tried to visit her son in the Middlesex C county jail, she had to produce photo identification.
Vasquez had gotten a photo ID through New Brunswick’s municipal ID program, but staff at the county jail don't accept it. She has yet to get through.
She hasn’t been able to visit her son during the six months he’s been there, and when she sees him in court, Vasquez isn’t allowed to approach and say anything to him. Still, they make an effort to talk on the phone almost every day.
Vasquez has lived in New Brunswick for 20 years, most recently working as a food vendor. She’s been an undocumented immigrant that whole time, facing one obstacle or another while trying to navigate the citizenship process.
For many residents like Vasquez, a municipal ID is critical, according to Charles Bergman, who leads New Brunswick Tomorrow’s Esperanza Project.
Without a clear path to citizenship, Bergman said, residents like Vasquez haven’t been able to obtain state IDs or drivers licenses; hence the municipal ID.
“To be able to do basic things here in our community, it’s important,” Bergman said.
New Brunswick is one of three municipalities in Middlesex County that has a municipal photo ID program; the others are Highland Park and Perth Amboy.
The Hub City passed its own municipal ID program at the June 7 city council meeting. Activists and immigrants packed the council chambers where the meeting was held and erupted into applause when the ordinance was passed.
It went into effect in late September.
Vasquez’s problem isn’t unique; municipal, county, state and federal officials have been slow to get on board with accepting municipal IDs, as have many businesses.
These IDs aren’t a drivers license, you can’t use them to get into an airport or some local banks, they might not be recognized if you were to travel around the state, out of state, or try to visit loved ones at a hospital.
And even local banks here in New Brunswick don’t have a formal policy of accepting municipal IDs from customers.
Bergman and several undocumented immigrants with plights similar to Vasquez’s spoke before the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders at the December 7 meeting.
Officials said they were open to recognizing these ID cards, with some of the freeholders even approaching Bergman and other residents after the meeting to say they were in favor of the move.
Freeholder Director Ron Rios promised he’ll meet with top county officials to make sure the municipal IDs are recognized at all county facilities.
Bergman said he was confident that the Esperanza Project's effort on the municipal ID program would be successful, and that he hopes to see the identification cards recognized county-wide by next month.
The current situations might not be malicious at all, Bergman suggested, just a result of miscommunication.
Jail staff might see a municipal ID from New Brunswick without ever having been told the program was enacted, thereby rejecting the ID and not letting the person in.
A memo had been sent out by the city stating that the ID program would be enacted. The school district, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and St. Peter’s University Hospital now accept the IDs, but the county still doesn’t, according to Bergman.
At a worst-case scenario, that could deter people from wanting to get the ID, because they’d lack faith in it. Bergman doesn’t want that to happen.
“We want to make sure it’s a benefit as wide as it can be for folks,” Bergman said, adding that any time the ID isn’t accepted, that challenges its’ legitimacy.
“The legitimacy is important.”
“Most of us take for granted being able to identify ourselves, and we do not realize how often we are asked for picture ID,” said Bob Belvin, head of New Brunswick’s library, which runs the program. “But for seniors, domestic violence survivors, the homeless and young people, as well as the undocumented, having a convenient method of identification is vital.”
Belvin didn’t immediately have numbers on how many people have enrolled in the city's ID program. But when the ordinance was passed in June, city officials expected 1,500 people would sign up in the first six months
The program serves the neediest residents of the city, officials hope, such as the homeless and undocumented immigrants.
In order to get the ID, residents have to set up an appointment with the library. Applicants must prove their identity and proof of residence.
A municipal ID costs $20 for adults and $7 for kids, veterans, people with disabilities and senior citizens. The program will accept cash and money orders.
But homeless people, victims of domestic violence and people who receive government assistance or whose household income is no more than 15 percent of the federal poverty level may apply for a “hardship exception waiver,” according to the ordinance that established the program.