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NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (Reuters) - New Haven, Connecticut, on Tuesday became the first U.S. city to issue identification cards to illegal immigrants, as opponents of the controversial cards booed the mayor and its backers cheered.
About 250 people gathered at the city hall as New Haven started issuing the cards that grant access to services such as libraries and parks, and give illegal immigrants a chance to open bank accounts.
Supporters say the ID cards, which are offered to all New Haven's 124,000 residents, will improve public safety and give protections to its estimated 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented workers. Critics say they will invite illegal immigration, strain services and waste taxpayer money.
Shouting matches erupted as the two sides argued over the legality of the program, which comes as immigration reform is stalled in the U.S. Congress, leaving many cities to struggle with how to deal with a growing undocumented population.
Inside city hall, more than 100 residents, legal and illegal, waited in line to pick up or apply for the card.
"We are here for a long time and we need something to show that we are not bad people," said a man who identified himself as Marvin from Honduras who has lived in New Haven for 15 years. "We need something to show to check our records and show that nobody is running from anything."
About two dozen protesters from Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform booed New Haven Mayor John DeStefano as he entered city hall, yelling: "Arrest him, arrest him. You're breaking the law, Johnny Boy."
The mayor did not acknowledge the crowd.
Later, when asked about the opposition, DeStefano said the city is dealing with an issue that the federal government has refused to address. "They don't have the will to pass a coherent immigration and border security program," he said.
"If we're going to be the safest place we can be, we need to acknowledge who lives here."
DeStefano said he doubted a plastic card in itself would spark an influx of illegal immigration.
"Immigration is largely driven by the desire of individuals to do better for themselves and for their children to have greater opportunity. That's what creates immigration patterns: work and opportunity. Not a piece of plastic."
Nadia Minor of Mexico, who came to New Haven with her family 12 years ago, said the cards were long overdue.
"I don't see what the big deal is. It's not giving us permanent resident status. I mean opening a bank account and being able to present an ID, is that something that is really wrong?" she said.
Two banks have agreed to accept the new card as identification sufficient for opening an account.
The Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform hopes to block the program with a complaint filed with the U.S. Attorney's office in Connecticut, saying the program violates federal law, said Dustin Gold, a member of the group.
"Just because our fed officials will not enforce it, it does not give a municipal politician the right to bend and break the rules. The mayor has to be held accountable for this," he said.
Linda Hartman of Branford, Connecticut, said the program is wrong. "This should be done on a national level. I don't believe it should be done locally," she said.