Oakland is poised to join a handful of cities in creating a municipal identification card that is touted primarily as a way for illegal immigrants to prove their identity.
But unlike programs in other locales, Oakland's plan will be the first in the nation to create an alternative banking system for the poor, with the ID doubling as a full-service debit card.
Card holders will be able to load money onto their cards, freeing them from the vulnerability of walking around with cash or relying on costly check-cashing outlets.
"This will probably be the most advanced municipal ID in the country," said Councilwoman and Mayor-elect Jean Quan, who has driven the effort alongside Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente.
While the debit card function is intended to help illegal immigrants, others see the card's varied uses as a way to broaden interest. That, they say, will prevent a municipal ID card from being a scarlet letter.
"We want to make sure that it's not just another way of identifying people who don't have documentation," said Councilwoman Nancy Nadel.
Oakland is not the first city to try to make municipal ID cards part of the fabric of nonimmigrants' lives.
An ID offered by San Francisco doubles as a library card and provides discounts at certain businesses. The Washington, D.C., card has a slew of functions and can be used to pay for public transit. New Haven, Conn., which implemented the first municipal ID in 2007, allows residents to use the card at parking meters.
Claudia Burgos, an aide to De La Fuente, said Oakland hopes to start issuing cards by March, after the council earlier this month awarded a contract to SF Global Group, a Los Angeles company that operates prepaid banking systems. The card would cost $15, or $10 for seniors and students.
Unlike a typical debit card, the Oakland ID can be loaded with up to $1,000 at a time at participating stores. Unlimited amounts can be added via payroll direct deposit.
In addition, SF Global Group and the council hope to expand the card's uses to include city libraries, Children's Fairyland and the Oakland Museum of California, and may offer them to schoolchildren. In Washington, D.C., every public school student has one, said Elias Enciso, director of business development for SF Global Group.
"It's a card that can serve all Oakland residents," Enciso said. "Because it's a debit card, it would serve many U.S. citizens who have been kicked out of the banking system."
Similar ID cards have prompted fierce opposition elsewhere. But when the City Council chose SF Global to distribute the cards, not one person spoke in opposition.
Oakland police officials have voiced support, while requesting that the cards feature strong protections against fraud and insisting that it not be allowed as a substitute for a driver's license. The proposed Oakland cards will have several security features, like watermarks and ultraviolet ink.
As currently proposed, however, the cards will not include physical characteristics like height, weight, hair color and eye color. Enciso says there's time to change that.
"Ultimately, the city will determine what they want the card to look like," Enciso said.
Only Councilman Larry Reid, who worried that the cards would worsen the city's budget crisis, spoke in opposition when the ordinance authorizing the cards came before the council last year. However, because the program is being outsourced, Oakland's ID cards aren't expected to cost the city a penny.
Among those looking forward to the cards is Margarida Villegas, 47, who has lived in the United States for 20 years.
Her husband and children are legal residents, but she's not. Part of the reason, she said, is that she lost critical legal paperwork in Mexico. As a result, she can't open a bank account.
Earlier this year, she was stopped by police for a traffic violation, prompting officers to say they needed to impound her car. Luckily for her, she was able to call her husband, who identified her.
"I want to be able to identify myself," she said.