Immigrant rights group seeks IDs for Polk County residents who can’t obtain official ones

Erica Johnson, Isabel Martinez Santos, and Anselma Ortega host a Facebook Live program at the East Side Library in Des Moines on a proposed Polk County community ID card. Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

By Melody Mercado, Des Moines Register

From opening a bank account to making a return at a retail store, IDs are needed for many aspects of life in. But not everyone can get one.

One local organization is trying to change that with, proposing that Polk County  implement a community ID program.


In 2019 Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, an immigrant rights organization based in Des Moines, identified multiple barriers for immigrants and residents who are unable to obtain a government-issued ID.

One of the main issues the organization said it found, through hosting several focus groups, was that without ID, interactions with local law enforcement can be difficult.

“People couldn’t prove who they were and didn’t have a form of identification that was safe and usable,” said Erica Johnson, executive director of Iowa MMJ.

In addition, IDs are needed to do all sort of seemingly routine things like confirming one’s identify when using credit cards; interacting with schools and other government agencies and, on occasion, visiting family members in the hospital.

An important note, Community IDs are not a substitute for state-issued IDs and therefore could not be used for things like voting or purchasing alcohol.

Johnson said the group’s initial push for the program was sidelined because of the pandemic, but was renewed when COVID-19 testing sites and vaccine clinics began requiring identification..


Johnson is hoping Polk County will consider using part of its $95 million in COVID-19 federal relief money to fund the start-up of the program.

Community ID programs already exist across the country, including Iowa

If it decides to issue the IDs, Polk County will not be alone in Iowa. In 2015 Johnson County implemented its own program, largely due to a campaign spearheaded by the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa.

The Johnson County auditor’s office issues the IDs — about 1,600 since the launch of the program. They cost $8 for adults and $4 for children and are valid for four years. Each ID card includes the photo, address and date of birth of the cardholder.

The program cost Johnson County $15,000-$20,000, according to report by the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Elsewhere, community ID programs have been implemented in cities and counties like Charlottesville Virginia, and Miami-Dade County, Florida.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, organizers of a community ID program call it a “saving grace” that has helped undocumented and homeless residents gain access to COVID-19 testing, something that was only available only to people who could prove they were county residents.

Community advocacy group PEACE — People Engaged in Active Community Efforts —started issuing the IDs in 2019 in conjunction with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.


“At the time there was also a group of homeless people who had gotten COVID relief checks and couldn’t cash them because they didn’t have an ID,” said Jill Hanson, a PEACE board member. “County officials actually asked us to help them get [community] IDs so that they would be able to access that aid.”

Community IDs are not a substitute for state-issued IDs and therefore can’t be used for voting, purchasing alcohol or other state-controlled activities.

Hansen told the Des Moines Register that the program has been very successful, with over 3,000 IDs issued since it began.

Polk County supervisors, community groups show interest

Over 20 organizations have signed on to the proposed Polk County program as supporters, with some committing to accept the IDs for access to programming and services.

They include Des Moines Public Schools, the Des Moines Public Library and Green State Credit Union.

The North Liberty-based credit union, with locations throughout Iowa and the Des Moines metro, told the Register that it already accepts the community ID as a form of identification in Johnson County and will do the same in Polk.

“It’s a model that’s working for us in Johnson County that would also help us serve and help people have a traditional relationship with a financial institution,” said Kenia Calderon Ceron, Green State’s bilingual business development director.

She said using the community ID to start a bank account could open financial doors to individuals and families, helping break the cycle of poverty. An estimated 15,000 undocumented immigrants were living in Des Moines in 2016, according to the Pew Center for Research.

“The more Iowans we can get into formal relationships with a credit union, the sooner we will get them on a path to make sure that their money is safe, and hopefully someday achieve the goal that many of our residents have, which is to own their home, open their own business or owning their own car,” Calderon Ceron said.

So far, Iowa MMJ has met with four of the five Polk County supervisors to discuss the program. Johnson said each of the supervisors seemed interested in wanting to learn more.

Supervisor Robert Brownell, a Republican, told the Register in an email that he’s not opposed to the idea, “providing there is some practical benefit to the card holder and to society at large.”

“I assume there is or we wouldn’t have counties already doing it,” Brownell said.

Supervisor Matt McCoy, a Democrat, expressed support for the program and said he believes having a community ID issued by the county would add validity to its use and acceptance.

“We should make our services and government fit the needs of the people and this is a need that people have,” McCoy said.

The next step for Iowa MMJ is to present the idea to the supervisors at a yet-unscheduled meeting.

Melody Mercado covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at [email protected] or Twitter @melodymercadotv.

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