David Fraccaro: How an ID card helps build trust between immigrants and law enforcement

Participants in the FaithAction ID program get their photos taken for the identification card, which is available to anyone in the community, but is especially helpful for people who may not have access to government-issued identification. Photos courtesy of FaithAction International.

A faith-based organization in North Carolina issues its own identification card as a way to promote understanding, trust and cooperation.

Beginning in 2012, FaithAction International House held a series of meetings with law enforcement officers and recent immigrants in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The gatherings were held in houses of worship and were intended to give these two communities -- which too often met only in situations of conflict or confrontation -- the opportunity to listen to each other.

The agenda at the beginning was open-ended. But what emerged was something very specific: the FaithAction ID, an identification card that gives recent immigrants and other residents a way to prove their identity, especially if they do not have access to government-issued forms of identification.

"An ID is just a piece of plastic until a human being gives it a name, a face and a story, and a community gives it value,” said David Fraccaro, a UCC pastor who is executive director of the organization.

“What we feel like we’re doing is recognizing that there’s a broken system,” he said. “And we’re trying to find a solution at the local level that builds greater understanding, trust and cooperation at a time that it’s desperately needed.”

The identification card does not entitle immigrants to any services; it merely provides a form of ID that allows law enforcement to confirm a person’s local address. Among other things, this helps prevent immigrants from being arrested -- and potentially deported -- for simply not having identification.

The model has spread to dozens of other cities in North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and beyond.

In this interview, Fraccaro talks about the FaithAction ID project and his reaction to recent events affecting immigrants to the U.S., as well as his own vocation as an advocate for immigrants.

The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Do President Trump’s recent executive orders regarding immigration and the building of the border wall affect your work?

These policies, largely based in fear and ignorance, stand in deep contradiction to our shared faith and moral values.

We are particularly concerned about attempts to turn local law enforcement into federal immigration agents, and to penalize cities who don’t cooperate.

We’ve worked for more than four years to build trust between local law enforcement and our newest immigrant neighbors. We believe this work has clearly led to a safer, more inclusive and united Greensboro.

We are not planning to change this program.

Q: What is the mood among your constituents?

People are more concerned than they have ever been in our history. Virtually every person who rings our doorbell each day will be affected by these devastating and reckless policies.

They are at greater risk of being discriminated against, profiled, and even unjustly detained and deported without due process -- separating families and placing many of our neighbors back into the shadows of our community.

Thankfully, dozens of mayors, police chiefs and city council members across the nation are speaking out and standing strong alongside their immigrant and refugee residents, refusing to be bullied into compliance.

It is our hope that these orders only further our faith in one another to stand up, speak out and do what is right.

Q: One of your signature programs is the FaithAction ID. How does it relate to the mission of your organization?

We have a saying that an ID is just a piece of plastic until a human being gives it a name, a face and a story, and a community gives it value.

This is a time when the dominant story that is told about most undocumented folks or those with limited status in this country is one that is faceless. They are described as being a problem or just being victims.

You’re not a problem or just victims. You’re people with names, faces and stories, and you have gifts to offer, and we have much to learn from you as well. And so if this ID process really takes off, it brings about a greater sense of hope and dignity.


The FaithAction International House hosts drives where get ID cards also serve as community-building events, where people gather, mingle and can learn about other services. 

Q: Your organization held a series of dialogues over six months with immigrants and police. What was the purpose of the dialogues?

We didn’t set out to create an ID card. The idea from the start was to build trust.

We serve many of these individuals, and we know many victims of crimes who were unwilling to contact the police because they were afraid this would turn into an immigration enforcement case -- and this means a less safe community for all people.

Q: What was the role of the church in the meetings?

All those meetings took place in sacred space in churches, synagogues or mosques. And as a Christian pastor, I would say that sacred space really made this program take off, really solidified the trust in the room.

Law enforcement felt more motivated to wear plain-dress clothing instead of a uniform, to come without their guns in the church. They were more willing to listen and recognize the inherent dignity of all human beings.

The immigrant community felt safer. The role of the priest or other faith leaders helped to say to everyone, “This is what this space is for, to build this trust. Everyone is safe here. Everyone has a name, a story, a face.”

In creating that space, the third ingredient was the Holy Spirit that really surrounded the dialogue. You could see and hear and feel it in people’s body language, in their tone of voice, in the tears that were shed, in the vulnerability, especially, that these groups started showing to one another.

To law enforcement’s credit, the first thing that they did was listen, instead of coming in, arms folded, and saying, “These are our laws. Any questions?”

And for me, I would say the Holy Spirit was a part of that. They were willing to not get overly defensive when they heard the immigrant community say, “These are our real experiences with you all, and some of them may be stereotypes, but some of them are very real, and we have some concerns. For example: Why do you have checkpoints? We feel profiled.”

And then, because the immigrant community felt listened to, law enforcement was also able to be heard. And so law enforcement were able to come and say, “Look, I have kids and partners just like you do, and I’m scared at the end of the day. We don’t always know who we’re dealing with. Sometimes when we do those checkpoints, it’s not to profile anybody. You may not realize a major crime took place in your community last night and we’re actually out trying to find this person to make your community safer.”

One officer came forward and said, “You know what? I’ve never shared this publicly, but my parents are undocumented, and I watched them work in the tobacco fields in rural North Carolina, and I heard the names that they were called, and saw the tremendous discrimination that they faced. So I know what it’s like to be you.

“Despite all that, there’s enough good in this community, in this state, in this nation that I still was willing to protect it, and even die for it if need be.”

And you just watched people’s tears, and the laughter, and the change in body posture. And you watched this beautiful dance happen within this dialogue.

Q: And the idea of issuing an ID emerged from that?

Yes, then this idea came about to build greater trust -- as a sign of that -- so that people, when they were stopped by police, weren’t arrested for simply not having a valid form of ID.

For many immigrants, this can be the road to detention and deportation, or be on their record, which could hurt their chances for a change in status in the future.

Not to mention the humiliation that comes with being arrested in front of your family, your community, etc.

It got to the point where somebody at around the fourth dialogue said, “I’m feeling good about this, but honestly, the majority of the time we interact with you all is in our cars. And how can we build trust if you don’t believe who we say we are when you stop us? Why don’t you give us a license?”

And law enforcement said, “We’d love it. It would make our job a lot easier. But that’s not our job. That’s up to the state and federal governments.”

And that’s when we raised our hands and said, “We don’t have the power to do a license, but what if we came up with and provided the funding for a nonprofit kind of membership card that law enforcement could use?”

Initially, cities were able to accept these so people could turn on their water, etc. Unfortunately, a state law called HB318 stopped North Carolina judges, clerks, magistrates and government officials from being able to accept the ID, but it was once a proud part of the program.

And law enforcement loved it, because they’ve got bigger fish to fry than going to a magistrate’s office for three hours, and getting tied up there, and building an even greater distrust with the community.

Q: What does the ID actually stand for if it’s not an official government card?

We say it’s a tool that can be used by law enforcement, health centers, some schools, businesses and cultural arts organizations to better identify, serve and protect you.

In order to receive the ID, folks need to go through a 30-minute orientation. And we have, about once a month, what we call FaithAction ID drives.

Q: What happens at the drives?

We do these drives at houses of worship. We keep the dialogue component, so while people are waiting in line, they have a continued dialogue with law enforcement.

We have an orientation describing very clearly what the ID is and is not, and what’s required to get it.

And what’s required to get it is proof of address and proof of photo ID, the same thing the DMV requires, just an expanded list to include some of the IDs that immigrants might have that are not U.S.-issued -- an embassy ID, a national ID, a passport, things along those lines.

Q: If they already have those things, why would they need the FaithAction ID?

First, those IDs don’t have their local address. Second, law enforcement and those other sectors have no concept of what the vetting system might be in those other countries, and so the trust is simply not there.

But [with the FaithAction ID] you have a nonprofit that’s been in the community for many years. That’s where the trust comes in.

And these ID drives turn into something remarkably useful and beautiful, and bring people closer together.

Sometimes the people are able to connect with nonprofits about other services -- say, the library is there, and the fire department, and they’re bringing fliers in Spanish.

At the last ID drive, we had 50 medical volunteers, including some doctors and nurses that gave flu shots and checked people out for free.

Q: What about the criticism that you are giving documents to people who don’t deserve them, essentially?

I would say a few things. One, there’s just a huge misconception around this term “illegal.” It’s become that identifier that keeps people as strangers. It keeps them as scapegoats. It keeps them faceless.

And that runs entirely against the notion of our own faith -- all human beings are children of God, have inherent dignity and worth, no human being is illegal.

The vast majority of the people that ring the doorbell at FaithAction had a good reason for crossing a border or overstaying a visa.

How do we know that? Because we spend hours with them. We know their stories. We know the hell they went through to get here. We know the hell that they left in their home countries.

I would do exactly the same thing if I were in the circumstances they were in, even if it meant potentially dying due to lack of water. The majority of women that cross that desert are raped.

And so what we feel like we’re doing is recognizing that there’s a broken system. And we’re trying to create something at the local level that builds greater understanding, trust and cooperation at a time that it’s desperately needed.

And we feel like this is a step at the local level to address what, unfortunately, is not only a national but a global issue.

Nobody’s getting social benefits. Taxpayer money is not being used to get this ID.

It is also very important to note that this card is by no means just for immigrants. Dozens of U.S. citizens also have the card, including people who are homeless or elderly, who do not have everything required for a DMV ID card, as well as people are coming out of jail and need an ID.

Many other citizens come and get their card as a sign of solidarity, and because they too believe in a safer, more inclusive and united community for all.

Q: Is it legal for you all to do this? Can just anyone set up their own ID?

Is it legal for the YMCA to create membership cards? And again, the ID is just a piece of plastic. It’s about whether or not the community gives it value.

When our state passed the law saying that no judges, clerics, magistrates or government officials could accept this ID anymore, they also tried to say law enforcement, too.

Well, in a rare move, law enforcement pushed back in North Carolina against the Republican-dominated legislature and said, “If you kill this program, you’ll kill 3 1/2 years’ worth of trust and create a less-safe city.” And so an exception was made.

Q: Do you ask about immigration status when you create these cards?

No.

Q: How can interested citizens help support this effort?

One of the greatest things that people of faith can do right now, including all churches, is to come out and get an ID.

Most of them will say, “How can I volunteer?” And we would say, “Honestly, we don’t need you to volunteer.

“We need you to take time off of work or on a weekend after church, get in line, show your address, go through the exact same process.”

The feds or states can try to turn local law enforcement into immigration agents. So essentially, if local law enforcement choose to participate in programs like 287G, they are given the OK to pull somebody over based on suspicion of immigration status or to inquire about immigration status when they engage somebody.

This can lead to a whole host of profiling issues. If this ID card gets known as “the undocumented immigrant card,” then particularly aggressive law enforcement in 287g communities they might assume that this person is undocumented.

The fact is the card has never just been for immigrants.  It is a community ID card, and many (other) citizens have this card as well, so it would be incorrect to assume that it is a card just for immigrants who may have limited or no current status.

And I can’t tell you how much it would mean to that community that you’re having to get in line to wait to go through this process just like them. That’s a beautiful act of solidarity.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your own background.

I grew up in small-town Indiana on the Kentucky border, 98 percent white, fairly conservative Christian.

I wanted at 21 to be an actor in New York City and moved to Queens, New York. For the first time in my life, I was a stranger. Thankfully, those strangers of different cultures, faiths and languages started opening up to me.

Just as I started to really embrace this diversity in my little neighborhood in Queens, 9/11 happened. And I saw that go down from the Queensboro Bridge, and my initial reaction was to go straight back to Indiana.

But something in my faith said, “Don’t give in to that fear.”

So I went to church, the Riverside Church in New York City, to begin kind of a struggle with this stranger-and-neighbor question.

This very kind woman said, “Come with us to go visit immigrants and asylum seekers in detention centers.”

I had no idea there were 250 detention centers, mostly windowless old airport warehouses or segregated parts of local jails, where on any given day 34,000 immigrants were held.

Some had criminal backgrounds, but many just simply didn’t have the right papers and were arrested at seaports or airports or on the border and put into these god-awful places.

They’re put in jumpsuits. All their possessions are taken away. There are no legal rights; nobody knows they’re even in there. I had a friend die from lack of decent medical treatment inside.

And so one visit turned into eight years’ worth of visiting every Saturday. I just -- they became neighbors. God became most powerfully alive to me inside the detention facility in one of America’s darkest corners.

They became not only friends, but they became teachers. I owe more to them than any fancy Ivy League school I went to.

And so part of me was like, “Where am I going to work now -- for the U.N.?”

But still, I really knew my Indiana roots. I knew how to speak the language. I knew the fears. I knew the hopes. I knew the cultural language.

So I went back to a place similar to that here in North Carolina, which had a 750 percent increase in its immigrant population over the last 20 years, on top of the black-white tension.

I just knew that I could probably have a lot more impact in a place like North Carolina -- and was perhaps needed there more than anywhere else.