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NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (Reuters) - As many U.S. cities and states arrest illegal immigrants in raids and toughen laws against them, a Connecticut city is offering to validate them under a controversial, first-in-the-nation ID card program.
Starting Tuesday, New Haven will offer illegal immigrants municipal identification cards that allow access to city services such as libraries and a chance to open bank accounts.
Supporters say the cards will improve public safety and give undocumented workers protections now afforded legal residents. Critics contend it will unleash a flood of illegal immigration, straining services and wasting taxpayer money.
New Haven officials overwhelmingly approved the program last month in a 25 to 1 vote.
Backers and detractors alike say the program appears to fill a vacuum after Congress failed to act on immigration reform, leaving many towns and cities to struggle with how to deal with a growing undocumented population.
Kica Matos, who administers the program for New Haven, said undocumented workers are often targeted by thieves and robbed because they carry cash, a result of not being able to open a bank account.
"Part of the reason they can't open bank accounts is because they don't have forms of identification that were valid," she said.
She said two banks had already agreed to accept the new city card, which will be offered to all New Haven residents, as legitimate identification sufficient for opening an account.
Local Latino advocacy group Junta for Progressive Action estimates 3,000 to 5,000 illegal immigrants live in the city of 124,000 people, many from Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala.
Yale University Law School, based in New Haven, helped research the city's idea and volunteered legal services. Several immigrants' rights groups also helped build up local support for the identification cards.
Opponents hope to rally the public against it. Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform says the ID cards will change "the entire country as we know it" and is organizing a protest on Tuesday at city hall.
"There are millions of illegal aliens right around us that when these ID cards are available to them, they will rush to them and get some identification that will allow them to go to other cities," said Ted Pechinski, who leads the group.
North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration PAC has circulated a flier in 40 states urging illegal workers to move to New Haven, said its president William Gheen.
"Maybe New Haven needs to learn, if they want the illegals, then they'll get the illegals," he said.
His flier, in English and Spanish, says: "Come to New Haven CT for sanctuary. Bring your friends and family members quickly."
Officials in several cities including New York and San Francisco have expressed interest in possibly starting similar programs, said Matos.
The new ID, she added, does not easily identify a person as an illegal immigrant. "That is the last thing that we want to have happen," she said. The card was created with several features to appeal to all residents, including a debit component and access to city services such as parks.
Fatima, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, said she is eager to apply for the card. "The ID will help me because it's a way to be in this country and get people to know who you are, especially for people who crossed the border and lost their papers," she said. "I feel safe here in New Haven."