“It's really a pastoral response," said Father Bruce Lewandowski of Sacred Heart parish, who was one of the main proponents of the program.
"A lot of immigrants and other people in vulnerable communities don't interact with the police because of mistrust, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's fear of racism, sometimes it's fear....that somehow the police are connected with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and it’s ‘if I call the police then I'm setting myself up for detention and deportation’ for people who are undocumented."
The Baltimore Police department does not handle immigration directly, which is a federal matter. Rather, the goal of the parish ID program is to better relationships between the community and the police.
"At our meetings with [interim police commissioner Gary Tuggle], as the commissioners did before him, he assured us that there is no immigration enforcement that is done by the Baltimore city police department, that's not their job,” Father Lewandowski stated.
“Their job is to keep Baltimore citizens safe and fight crime. So in order to help them do that, that's why we're promoting the [parish ID] program."
Interim Baltimore police commissioner Tuggle said he planned to introduce the card to his command staff Oct. 11, and would train the entire department to recognize the card within two weeks.
The parish ID cards will explicitly state that they are not government-issued forms of identification.
Each recipient of the card will go through a two-hour group orientation session of 30-40 people, Father Lewandowski said, to train them on “basic civics” so they understand what the card can and cannot be used for.
“We want people to be very clear about the use of the card,” he said. “"Basically what it means is: if I call 911...I can show them the parish ID that says I'm known in the community, this is my city, I belong here—that the mayor supports me, in a certain sense; that the archbishop supports me; that my parish [supports me].”
Father Lewandowski emphasized that the relationship between some city residents and the Baltimore Police Department is very tense, and the police department has had recent issues with stability; three police commissioners have come and gone in the past 3 years, and the current interim commissioner will not be seeking a permanent position.
To mitigate any potential changes in attitude toward the program when a new police commissioner arrives, Father Lewandowski said that Mayor Catherine Pugh has publicly committed to continue to support the parish ID program under the new police commissioner, whenever he or she begins work. Pugh will be up for re-election in 2020.
Maryland already allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver's license or identification card, as does D.C. and 11 other states. Among other requirements, the applicant must show proof of having paid Maryland income tax for two years.
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In addition, Baltimore voted to create a program in 2016 that would issue city ID cards to residents, but the program has yet to be rolled out. Father Lewandowski said the makers of the parish ID decided they couldn't wait for the city to act.
He said the parish ID is a both/and solution that will likely supplement the municipal ID in the future, but the parish ID has the added advantage of not requiring applicants to provide personal information to the City of Baltimore.
The first person to call the church ask for a parish ID, Father Lewandowski said, was an 85-year-old parishioner at Sacred Heart, born and raised in Baltimore, who no longer drives, and thus had no current form of ID.
"So the ID really is for everybody," he said. "In our very difficult circumstances here [in Baltimore], this is a way to help people feel safe.”
A broader perspective
Baltimore is not the first city to pilot church-issued ID cards; several Dallas-area churches began issuing ID cards to undocumented immigrants in May. The Texas church IDs include a person’s name, address and home parish.