HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (AP) — More than 200 people with no legal U.S. identification crammed into a North Carolina church on a recent Wednesday night to become part of an ID program created by immigration activists in partnership with police -- one community's response to a pressing issue for immigrants and officers alike.
With no ID, even commonplace transactions like cashing a check or visiting a health clinic may become impossible. And for police, stopping a person with no ID can mean a simple interaction suddenly becomes punitive.
Esperanza Moreno, an illegal immigrant who lives in Durham, said people without IDs are frightened by reports of violence between officers and minorities they have seen on the news.
"We don't have the culture to know what to do when police stop you," she said as she waited in line for her photo to be taken.
The initiative began three years ago, after officials from the Greensboro-based interfaith immigration advocacy group FaithAction International House began talking with police about building bridges to the immigrant and minority communities.
They came up with FaithAction ID cards, in conjunction with meetings to help the police and immigrants talk with one another.
The nonprofit group issues the cards, which show a photo, full name, address, date of birth, country of origin and date of expiration. Participants must attend a meeting with police, where officers can explain checkpoints, traffic stops and address concerns about profiling to a group that often lives in shadows.
"Officers do have a job to do, and we as leaders expect them to do it respectfully and compassionately," Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue told the crowd. "If any officer asks you to stay in the car, please stay in the car. If any officer asks you to step out of the car, please step out of the car. We know that's scary."
To obtain or renew an ID, people pay $10, bring a passport or national ID and a proof of address and sit for a photo. Once the information has been vetted by FaithAction workers and attorneys, participants receive the photo ID in about two weeks.
They aren't government IDs and can't substitute for driver's licenses, but officers say they can minimize complications during traffic stops or crime reports by confirming people are who they say they are and live where they say they live.
Local ID programs aimed at immigrant, homeless and ex-felons have emerged in major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, since New Haven, Connecticut, created the first in 2007.
North Carolina's model is gaining recognition among community organizers, because it is run by a nonprofit, rather than a government, and was launched with a meager $5,000 budget. FaithAction trains other community groups to host the drives in their regions, said program founder, the Rev. David Fraccaro. The program has issued more than 7,000 ID cards that are recognized by law enforcement, some health centers, schools, businesses and cultural organizations in 16 cities and 9 counties.
The FaithAction ID network has earned praise from North Carolina law enforcement and national recognition from advocacy groups in other major U.S. cities looking to emulate the model.
Cincinnati, Ohio, city leaders agreed this spring to accept nonprofit IDs from Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati, a group of 17 religious organizations that worked closely with FaithAction to build the program.
Fraccaro and FaithAction representatives were also called to Houston last month to discuss the program with community organizations and immigration advocates. Laura Perez-Boston from Texas Organizing Project said the city might not have the means or political appetite for a municipal ID program, but leaders are considering "the Greensboro model."
Nevertheless, opponents in North Carolina's GOP-dominated General Assembly want to shut down the FaithAction ID program.
They think the cards represent local governments slackening immigration regulations in defiance of state law, and invite non-citizens to take advantage of the state's Medicaid, justice system and job markets.
Last year the General Assembly banned most government officials from accepting the FaithAction cards. A narrow exception was left for law enforcement, but the IDs' expanding popularity brought renewed attempts to eliminate them this year. Those efforts never won enough support.
Rep. George Cleveland, R -Onslow, who brought the bill and has backed tighter immigration policies, said he will return with legislation to eliminate the ID program again next year.
"It's an easy 'out' for law enforcement," Cleveland said. "I'm not here to make someone's job easier. We're here a country of laws."
Some police say the cards help immigrants work within the law.
The cards help victims report crimes without fear they will be arrested alongside the criminals for not having an ID, said Greensboro Police Capt. Mike Richey.
Ana Gomez of Durham obtained her card in June and said she has used it at a county health clinic, a bank and when she was stopped by a police officer for speeding.
"It's not like we don't trust them, it's like you don't trust yourself when you talk to them," Gomez said.
Fraccaro said every day brings new reasons to support a program like the ID cards.
"You open up that paper on any given day you'll see bad news about immigration, bad news about police-minority relationships," Fraccaro said. "This innovative, effective program is making a pretty significant difference on two of the most heated and complex issues in the United States."