The Empire State: How does IDNYC navigate infrastructural violence?

Without a government-issued identity, there are infrastructural barriers to existing within a modern city. Your ability to move within buildings such as libraries or your children’s school is forfeited frequently making you unable to engage actively within your community, access city services or even obtain a bank account. Unjust relations are built into the city landscape determining who is entitled access to public property and services. The terminology ‘alien’ applied to undocumented citizens psychologically challenges your right to exist, despite the United Nations identifying an officially recognized identity as a basic human right. Rodgers and O’Neill’s introduction to the ‘Infrastructural violence’ issue of Ethnography identified these as “forms of social exclusion that fundamentally question notions of citizenship, rights and membership claims by the poor and otherwise vulnerable” occasionally extending into biopolitics and the unauthorized citizen’s right to survive.


Since 2015, IDNYC has allowed vulnerable residents of New York City including the homeless, survivors of domestic violence and undocumented immigrants to gain free municipal identification without the need for lawful status or permanent address. Enabling social inclusion, the city later ran a campaign (incentivized with additional benefits such as reduced rates at cultural institutes) to encourage citizens without any impending need for the card to sign up. The aim became to make this an ID for all NYC, not to demarcate the vulnerable. If infrastructure is simultaneously ecological and relational (Susan Leigh Star 1999) the fact that NYC has a higher percentage of foreign-born immigrants than any other city weds the need for inclusion with identification.

Although overwhelmingly embraced, any opposition to the scheme has centered on security fears that terrorists could be enabled through economic access with former Republican Senator Greg Ball declaring it a ‘homeland security nightmare’. With the Trump administration already restricting use of drivers licenses where background checks do not meet federal government standards, “national security came to be defined, at least in part, in terms of the security of vital systems” (Collier and Lakoff 2006) and a perceived ever-present external threat that may already lurk on ‘our’ shores.


It’s a cruel irony that if Trump enacts his pledge to deport millions of illegal immigrants the IDNYC database could neaten his task. Mayor de Blasio has already threatened to erase all records to protect personal privacy forefronting the rights of the individual. His response to the impending threat attempts to undermine the infrastructural violence which repeatedly threatens to marginalize and disconnect.

Caught amidst “the systemic forms of violence that occur through a society’s effort to organize and govern itself” (Foucault 2001) illegal immigrants bear the brunt of an infrastructure fearful of ‘the enemy within’. IDNYC reflects a liberal attempt for social cohesion whilst the wider federal infrastructure denies many their right to freely live where they call ‘home.’ Many who stepped out of the shadows through the scheme now fear having exposed themselves to the risks of deportation. Through adhering to the need for legitimization, the system has now shifted its scope.


All photography is the property of the author.

Further reading:

Collier S. & A. Lakoff (2008). The Vulnerability of Vital Systems: How ‘Critical Infrastructure’ became a security problem. In The Politics of Securing the Homeland: Critical Infrastructure, Risk and Securitisation  London: Routledge.

Foucault M (2001) Space, knowledge, and power. Power: The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984 Vol 3, New York: New Press, 349–364.

Rodgers, D & B. O’Neill (2012). “Infrastructural violence: Introduction to the special issue”, Ethnography 13(4):401-412.


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