Around lunchtime on a recent rainy day Uptown, a group of middle school students on a field trip wandered around the new ¡NUEVOlution! exhibit at Levine Museum of the New South.
The exhibit gives a feel for what that New South looks like, and how it will continue to change despite laws that make it exponentially harder to become a documented resident than in times past.
Within the group, a young girl giggled while telling her friend how badly she had failed a citizenship test. A boy stared at a long piece of paper that reached the floor as if looking at how much homework he'd have to do before finishing high school. The paper was an official checklist of documents that applicants must provide to officials before they can be considered for citizenship.
It was all in a careless afternoon for these local kids, but for many trapped in the maze that has become the path to citizenship, these anxieties are all too real. The process takes between 10 and 20 years for most applicants, and during that time those already in the country as undocumented immigrants often feel alienated and unwelcome.
It was with this in mind that the Charlotte City Council decided in November 2013 to form an Immigration Integration Task Force (IITF) consisting of local advocates, residents, business leaders and city officials to come up with ways to help integrate Charlotte's immigrant community.
In March 2015, the IITF presented city council with 27 recommendations for action following about a year of research and listening sessions with members of the immigrant community.
One suggestion many see as most crucial — and one that's also been the most controversial — is to implement a municipal identification system, producing ID cards accepted throughout the city for residents who often have a hard time obtaining a driver's license or other identification.
These populations include undocumented immigrants, senior citizens, homeless people and people recently released from prison, among others. LGBT groups have also supported the push for municipal IDs, as transgender people often experience obstacles to acquiring ID that identifies them as the gender they identify as, creating healthcare barriers and other problems.
Much of the controversy surrounding the idea of municipal IDs is in regards to the immigrant population and the misguided belief that municipal IDs change the immigration status or voting rights of undocumented immigrants. Oliver Moreno, coordinator with the Levine Museum, said it's about recognizing a population of residents that call Charlotte home but feel unwelcome.
"One of the issues with the ID is that it just makes sense to have them," Moreno said. "Besides the technicalities and advantages of having ID, on the bigger level it's saying everybody is welcome. Documented or not, you are a part of this city."
Just above half of the Latinos in the southeastern United States are currently citizens, according to the Levine Museum. The South is home to the fastest growing Latino population in the country, and Latino purchasing power in North Carolina has grown 1,571 percent since 1990, according to the exhibit.
Some local government officials have been supportive of the idea, and City Manager Ron Carlee has formed a new Immigration Integration Implementation Team consisting of city staff tasked with putting into action some of the recommendations made by the IITF, including municipal IDs.
However, a law passed by lawmakers in the last hours of the 2015 North Carolina General Assembly session may look to thwart these efforts, or at least slow them down, if signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.
House Bill 318 was designed to make stricter laws regarding verification of whether or not a person can legally work in the state of North Carolina before an employer can hire them. A section of the law originally tightened up restrictions on what types of identification law enforcement could accept, but at nearly 4 a.m. on September 30, just before lawmakers finally voted on the law and went home for the winter, a technical amendment was added stating that law enforcement officers could accept municipal IDs if they are the only form of available ID.
Major Diego Anselmo with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, speaking as part of a panel discussing municipal IDs in Charlotte on October 4, said the department supports a push for municipal IDs to be implemented in the city, and that doing so would improve public safety and save police officers countless hours that are currently spent trying to identify people who may have just broken a simple traffic law.
"It's a lot easier and a lot quicker for us," Anselmo said. "We want police officers on the street preventing crime. It's easier for us to issue a citation than to process someone at the intake center. It takes a long time for that to happen. It doesn't take that long to issue a citation. That's the way we'd rather go and that's the way (CMPD) Chief (Kerr) Putney feels about it."
Republican lawmakers repeatedly stated during Senate and House debates that they believed language in the bill restricting the use of different types of identification would make the state a safer place.
In a statement about House Bill 328, which eventually turned into the identification language of House Bill 318, N.C. Representative Paul Stam said the implementation of municipal IDs would create "a dangerous threat to our citizens" and "make law enforcement more dangerous."
Anselmo, who has been with CMPD for 25 years and currently manages the department's Community Services Bureau, served on the IITF and has traveled to New York City to see how the municipal IDs there have been a success. Similar programs have also seen success in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Anselmo paints a different picture about municipal IDs than lawmakers like Stam.
"The important thing for law enforcement is the identification," Anselmo said. "We don't know who we're dealing with, and that's the key thing that we need to have from this is to have confidence that the person who we're issuing a citation to or who we're questioning is who they say they are."
While the last-minute amendment did allow police departments to recognize municipal IDs, the bill still prohibits judges, magistrates, clerks and other government officials from recognizing them. Perhaps more importantly, the bill bars government officials, including police, from accepting other forms of identification such as consular IDs, issued by foreign governments like Mexico to citizens living abroad, as proof of identity.
Speaking alongside Anselmo on Sunday night, Carolyna Manrique, an attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, said the new law only justifies why efforts supporting municipal IDs in Charlotte are so important.
"Banks can still accept them. They can be accepted in businesses, so it's not a complete prohibition on Municipal IDs and, more importantly, it only applies to a select group of government officials," Manrique said. "(The amendment) shows it's critical for law enforcement to be able to identify people so it actually supports our position that municipal IDs are a good idea. Law enforcement will still have discretion to accept municipal IDs for identity and residency, so we should continue to move forward with this movement. We will have to tweak it a little bit, but it's certainly not over yet."
Joining Anselmo and Manrique on stage Sunday night was Omar Jorge, partner and chief counsel for Compare Foods. Jorge spoke about the importance of including immigrants, whether documented or not, in the local economy. He said recent anti-immigration laws in Georgia, Alabama and Arizona scared immigrants into staying home and the economy suffered.
"Just as immigrants are less scared, they're going out and shopping more, now we're going to scare them again with H.B. 318. We're going to say, 'None of your identification documents are valid, so you need to stay in your house or leave the state,'" Jorge said. "What does that do for business when we lose customers? These are not just people that we don't know, these are people that come into my business every day. These are the people that visit neighborhood businesses and keep them going. Imagine South Boulevard or Central Avenue without immigrants, they would be destroyed."
Jorge emphasized the importance of including local businesses and services in the municipal ID system and tying in discounts for things such as busses and light rails for riders with IDs, so that residents beyond the groups that usually benefit from such a system will want to take part.
David Fraccaro, executive director with FaithAction International House, which helped implement an alternative ID system in Greensboro in 2013, said that even without city sponsorship, alternative IDs can get the community engaged in other ways.
The Faith House IDs have been embraced by some local police departments, such as the Burlington Police Department, which holds drives for applicants during which community members can get to know police more personally, a program Anselmo said he'd like to see copied in Charlotte.
The local sheriff's office in Greensboro does not accept the IDs, however, and representatives have said they think they're too easy to fake. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office has stated its support for municipal IDs in Charlotte.
Speaking over Skype from Greensboro, Fraccaro said the Faith House IDs are also used in banks, grocery stores and children's museums, and even by some local pharmacies, allowing cardholders to get medicine they desperately need.
"These are measurable pieces to how the IDs work and some of the stories will make you cry," Fraccaro said. "That's what's happening here."
The cost of implementing municipal IDs can vary, as well as the cost to the cardholder, which has been anywhere from $30 to free in cities with existing municipal ID systems. Anselmo said the process is still in its early stages and details like funding have not been decided yet.
Moreno, who is currently exempt from deportation under the federal Deferred Action law, said his parents are still undocumented and he worries that his mother, who has to drive to get to work, will be taken to jail during a routine traffic stop.
Moreno said he has heard all the arguments about the economic impact of immigrants, but believe this issue goes beyond that.
"People often justify undocumented immigrants by the economic contribution that they're making, but think about how they're reshaping this region," he said. "You should be welcoming to someone not just because they're giving you something and contributing to your economy, but because they're people just like you. For one reason or another, these people decided to come here and they consider this place home and everywhere you turn they beat you back and say you don't belong here. So what would it mean for the city to say, 'You are a Charlottean, you are a part of the city?' Documented or not, we are a part of this city."