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Papers, please! The need for a better approach to Identification Documents for Trans and Immigrant communities

What if you had to constantly worry about never having the “right” identification papers? How many times each day, each week, would you have to show your ID and worry about being harassed or questioned about who you are? How would you travel, open a bank account, find a job, or access public institutions such as libraries and the courts? What if you had to worry that even something as simple as having a drink with a friend, using a public bathroom, or driving to the store to pick up some aspirin might subject you to humiliation, violence, or arrest by law enforcement, or even private security personnel at the moment you show them your ID? These are some of the problems and concerns faced by many immigrants who are undocumented and unable to obtain state or federal ID, as well as by transgender people who may be unable to obtain ID that matches their gender presentation or identity.

The laws that are the source of much of this anxiety are created and sustained by unexamined assumptions about whose privacy deserves respect. This is how in a constitutional democracy, governmental or private actors can publicly scrutinize certain aspects of a person’s history (in this case, gender and immigration history) which are essentially irrelevant to the function at hand (establishing age, for example, or an address where someone can be reached).

As someone whose work involves providing resources to transgender and immigrant community members, I often find myself in the position of having to ask questions that are very personal and may bring up painful or private memories, for example: “What country were you born in? When did you enter the country? Why did you leave your country of origin? What kind of work might you do if you could stay in the U.S.? Have you had any surgery related to gender transition? What kind of surgery? When did you have your surgery? Can you contact your doctor? Where were you born? When and where did you get married? What is your spouse’s gender identity and history?”

These questions do not matter logically or ethically for the goal the person seeks to achieve (usually something like access to healthcare, a job, or how to take a trip with their family), but I feel I must ask them in order to better know what legal resources might be useful, because I know this is information that state and federal governments feel entitled to obtain – whether by asking direct questions or by more intrusive means - just to provide the very basic safeguards of safety and dignity that, in theory, should be available on an equal basis to all.

Much of the public anxiety around issues of ID is based in unfortunate misunderstandings of why people immigrate or transition from one gender to another. People who may never have had to consider immigration or gender identity as a personal issue may assume that these decisions are made lightly or that the ready availability of ID is the factor that would determine whether a person will transition or move to the U.S..  Not only is this unrealistic, this perspective also renders invisible (or considers as unimportant) the lives and stories of immigrants and transgender people, who have the same desires as other people to form ties to their community, to receive acknowledgment of their family ties, to be free from hate violence and domestic violence, to find safe, dignified work, to visit with family and friends, and to be active in civic and political life.

There is little question that LGBT community members are deeply affected by and have a real stake in comprehensive immigration reform that would bring many undocumented immigrants out of the margins and enable them to obtain identification documents (and the various benefits they confer):

In addition, those in movements for transgender equality and justice for immigrants have also found common ground in creating alternatives to the intrusive and totalizing system of state and federal identification documents (which are often difficult or impossible to obtain for those who don’t have the “right” immigration history or the “right” gender history).  In San Francisco, CA and New Haven, CT, for example, local communities supported a municipal ID that does not require a gender marker or extensive intrusive questions about immigration status.

Similar proposals are being considered in New York and Los Angeles, and Oakland, CA is in the process of making their municipal ID a reality. All these are opportunities for local communities to support safety and dignity for populations long marginalized by state and federal ID requirements. Personally I hope these programs demonstrate that if we stop demanding that people prove their gender and immigration history fits within a certain norm, the world will not end, and our communities will in fact be richer by being more inclusive. 

More Resources:

The National Center for Transgender Equality has a webpage with tips for transgender air travelers.


The Transgender Law Center’s publication “ID Please” is a guide for transgender people on obtaining ID that matches their gender identity in California:


Oakland City ID Blog:



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