As New York City reopens, getting government-issued identification remains largely on lockdown, those who’ve attempted to obtain new driver’s licenses and municipal ID cards complain.

Applicants say that state Department of Motor Vehicles appointments remain scarce, while IDNYC offices shuttered in March and have not yet reopened.

Driving, working, accessing government services and exercising their right to vote are on the line for those who haven’t been able to get New York documents. For immigrants, advocates say, the inability to obtain papers magnifies intense fear and insecurity. 

“Any interactions with the NYPD, for example, or when you go into a hospital, when you are trying to enroll your kids in school, you are going to need an ID and all of those are critical especially in this moment during a pandemic,” said Anu Joshi, vice president of policy for the New York Immigration Coalition.

“That need doesn’t go away during a national emergency.” 

Reservations Required 

The state Department of Motor Vehicles is requiring reservations for limited in-person services at 13 field offices currently open in New York City. (The Atlantic Center office in Brooklyn remains closed due to its location within a mall, a DMV spokeswoman said.) The offices shuttered in mid-March and re-opened with the state’s Phase 3.

While straightforward license renewal applications can be submitted online, new applications or upgrades to enhanced licenses must be handled in person. The online reservation system shows that appointments for most of the city’s field offices are already fully booked several weeks into the future.

Rachel Weingeist, who lives in lower Manhattan, attempted for several days this month to book an appointment at the DMV location on Greenwich Street. She’d hoped to obtain a state-issued non-driver ID for her 19-year-old daughter, who was seeking to register to vote for the first time. 

But the earliest available reservation was several weeks out and Weingeist had trouble booking the appointment online. Weingeist said that upon calling the DMV, she was unable to obtain clearer guidance for next steps.

“She is a teenager. How many teenagers are going to go through this whole process, hours and hours, waiting on hold, to get an ID?” Weingeist asked in an interview with THE CITY. 

On a Friday afternoon at the DMV office on Greenwich Street, a handful of people turned up for appointments, with a few expressing confusion about next steps for services such as car registration and obtaining a learner’s permit. William Bailey, 32, of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, had dropped off forms to register a newly purchased car that he hoped to drive on a weekend getaway. He said he had “no idea when it’ll be ready.” 

Brooklyn resident William Bailey traveled to the DMV in lower Manhattan, Aug. 21, 2020. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Odalis Barzallo, 22, of Brooklyn, arrived at the DMV location with her parents in an attempt to resolve a months-long quandary to secure her dad’s learner’s permit. Prior to the city’s shutdown, her father had taken a test and been issued a permit but, she said, the DMV had printed the wrong address on the ID. The Barzallo family waited months until DMV offices reopened to rectify the issue. 

Barzallo said they were first directed on the phone by the DMV to make an appointment. But when they arrived for the appointment, they were told to call the department yet again to deal with the address error.

Barzallo’s father, who asked that THE CITY not publish his name, said in Spanish that he was hoping to receive a driver’s license in order to boost his chances of procuring a new job. He said his hours at his current job at a restaurant had been halved. 

IDNYC Still Shuttered

Meanwhile, people seeking a municipal identification card for the first time can’t get one at all. 

Launched five years ago, the city’s free IDNYC counts more than 1.3 million cardholders, making it the largest municipal ID program in the nation, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. 

It is available to all New Yorkers over 10 years old, regardless of immigration or housing status, and is an accepted form of ID to enter schools and other municipal buildings, open bank accounts, and during interactions with the police. 

When Mayor Bill de Blasio first unveiled the card at a Queens Public Library branch in January of 2015, he described it as a “gateway to City services” for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers previously unable to obtain identification. 

The card must be renewed after two years for cardholders 14 years old and under, and after five years for cardholders older than 14. 

As many as 350,000 cards — the number of enrollments through the first six months of the program’s inception — may have expired during the city’s shutdown as the five-year cycle for adults has lapsed. The city has received more than 71,000 renewal requests from March through July of this year. 

City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca holds a hearing on IDNYC, Feb. 12, 2019. Credit: William Alatriste for the New York City Council/Flickr

While the city is continuing to process requests for renewal, new applicants are being turned away. 

There is no set reopening date for the IDNYC enrollment centers, some of which are located within library branches and hospitals. The NYPD “until further notice” will consider cards that expired on or after March 12, 2020, as a valid form of ID, and select benefit partners may still be recognizing expired cards, according to the IDNYC website.

Danger of Deportation

Immigrant-focused community groups noted that ID is essential not only for obtaining utilities and driving a car, but also in tempering interactions with authorities from law enforcement agencies. 

Amy Torres, director of policy and advocacy for the Chinese-American Planning Council, said the continued pause on IDs is especially troubling because of anecdotal reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have resumed neighborhood enforcement actions. 

Dealings with the NYPD, she said, are also fraught for those without ID, who are subject to arrest for offenses that could otherwise be settled with a summons.

“Police also exploit refusal to show ID as an excuse for arrests if they claim you are confrontational in your refusal or cannot write a summons without your ID,” Torres added. “These tactics escalate minor interactions into something far more dangerous, making it all the more important that people are able to apply, renew, and receive their IDs in a timely way.”

Without an ID, New Yorkers can be left with no option but to carry sensitive documents such as non-U.S. passports. This can quickly push interactions with authorities into dangerous territory, said Yaritza Mendez, associate director of organizing for grassroots group Make the Road New York. 

“We want to make sure that the city and state agencies that are issuing these types of IDs are also opening up to make sure our people are staying safe and secure when they are going in the streets,” Mendez added. 

With translation by Hiram Alejandro Durán.