A Human Right to the City: Municipal Identification & Urban Inclusion


Access to Chicago’s institutions, services, and supports hinges on residents’ ability to produce valid, government-issued identification. Such identification is often out of reach for groups already excluded from full participation in society—undocumented immigrants, youth and low-income seniors of color, transgender residents who do not identify with the gender marker assigned on their state ID, and those who are homeless, formerly incarcerated, or residentially unstable. The lack of access to government-issued identification poses urgent human rights challenges, precluding individuals’ ability to receive healthcare, exercise the right to vote, and engage in formal employment, and leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment by police forces.

This project focuses on a new program by the City of Chicago to issue municipal identification cards. To date, approximately three-dozen cities around the country have begun to issue municipal identification cards to ameliorate social exclusion, constituting a “human right to the city” (Harvey 2008; Lefebvre 1996). Yet there has been remarkably little rigorous research assessing the effects of municipal identification, leaving a dearth of actionable knowledge of the extent to which municipal ID cards, such as Chicago’s new CityKey, meaningfully “unlock” access to urban democracy and basic human rights. This project is among the first academic studies to assess the relationship between municipal identification cards and access to city institutions, services, and protections necessary for the everyday exercise of human rights.

Chicago is estimated to be home to 183,000 immigrants who are unauthorized; 125,000 individuals experiencing homelessness; the majority of Illinois’ 49,750 transgender residents; and, in 2013 alone, 12,000 recently released formerly incarcerated individuals in Illinois settled in the city. These groups and others are at risk of decreased access to a valid, government-issued ID. To address this issue, Chicago’s City Council allocated $1 million to the creation of a municipal ID card in October 2016, followed by the passage of a municipal ID ordinance in April 2017. CityKey became available to the public in May 2018, with broad access beginning the following summer. Up to three community-based organizations are partnering with the city during the first year of the program (spring 2018-spring 2019) to engage in community outreach and host mobile CityKey printing stations, with the goal of supporting 75,000 residents in acquiring this municipal ID card.

This project analyzes the implementation of CityKey throughout the city of Chicago during its first year, with a specific focus on the reach of the program—its ability to provide identification documents to vulnerable communities that are often “hidden” to state institutions (as well as its consequences)—whether it increases equity in individuals’ ability to access a range of social services, engage in political participation, enjoy rights protections in interactions with police, and increase usage of cultural institutions, such as libraries. As more cities adopt municipal identification in response to exclusionary federal and state policies, the findings of our analysis will provide invaluable guidance on the relationship between contemporary urban governance and human rights.

Participating Faculty

Angela S. García, School of Social Administration
Yanilda María González, School of Social Administration
Marci Ybarra, School of Social Administration

Project Activities

With the launch of CityKey, Chicago became one of many cities around the country that has recently enacted a program to issue municipal ID cards. Although having a valid government-issued ID is necessary for accessing essential institutions and services, many disadvantaged communities—such as African Americans, immigrants, and low-income people—are less likely to have such an ID. As stricter federal and state guidelines have made it more difficult to obtain government-issued ID, cities around the country have stepped in to issue their own municipal ID cards, particularly for vulnerable communities unable to access state and federal IDs. Do these municipal ID programs successfully reach vulnerable populations and increase access to important institutions and services? Join us for a discussion about urban citizenship and inclusion with Chicago public officials and community leaders who designed and implemented the CityKey ID program, and officials from other cities with municipal ID cards.

Read about our May 2019 mini-conference focused on municipal identification.