Sacred Heart of Jesus church sign


The Archdiocese of Baltimore has issued more than 1,000 parish identification cards to city residents that otherwise have difficulty getting another form of ID.


The program started in October 2018 as a way to try and bring together two Baltimore communities that didn’t seem to be understanding one another – the immigrant community and the police.


Baltimore’s hispanic population has seen a boom in its numbers in recent years. Alongside that population increase has been higher levels of crime committed against latinx individuals in the city. Unfortunately, many in the community agree that the number of those crimes is most likely higher as latinx individuals are less likely than others to report crimes.


As Father Bruce Lewandowski, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus church in East Baltimore, explains, the victims of these unreported crimes oftentimes are undocumented immigrants who choose not to go to the police out of fear. 


Sacred Heart of Jesus church sign
Sacred Heart of Jesus in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood is considered a hub of the city’s latinx community

“A lot of undocumented people have a disproportionate fear of interaction with the police thinking that it could somehow trigger their being detained and deported,” Lewandowski said.


According to a statement released by the Baltimore City Police Department in July of this year, Baltimore police officers do not inquire anyone involved in an incident about immigration status, nor do they collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement removal orders. This statement made official a policy that Baltimore police had been practicing for some time.


Further, as the Washington Post reported last year just after the parish ID program’s start in October, Baltimore police were receiving formal training for how to recognize the ID.


Although many undocumented immigrants have some form of identification from their home countries, they cannot receive a state-issued Maryland identification card or driver’s license until they can present proof of two years of income tax filings in the state. As a result, many newly arrived immigrants have trouble getting documentation that connects them to the city in some way. This, among other factors, adds to a sense of unease that undocumented immigrants often feel around city officials like police officers.


Now a year since the program’s start, Lewandowski considers the more than 1,000 identification cards his parish has issued as an important step in empowering Baltimore’s immigrant community. 


When someone applies for the parish ID, they must present a proof of address, have an individual sign a notarized statement affirming that they know them personally, and show another form of photo ID, even if expired. For many immigrants in the city, this is often their old passport.


The second step is to participate in an hour-long “orientation,” which as Lewandowski describes, functions a bit more like a civics lesson. Church staff, as well as outside facilitators from local immigrant service organizations like CASA and the Esperanza Center, review with the new ID holders what their rights as residents of the city are and offer tips for interacting with police.


“It’s important for people to have a way to tell the police that they live here and that they’re known, that they belong,” Lewandowski said. “When the police see your ID from Sacred Heart of Jesus, they know that we know you, that they belong here and are contributing to society here.”


Critics of the program point to the fact that the IDs do not function outside of the Baltimore area and cannot give card holders access to federal buildings like courthouses. Lewandoski recognizes these challenges, but celebrates the various ways the program has been able to help members of the community.


“So parents use that ID when they take their kids to school, we’ve had fathers go to see their newborn babies using the ID,” he said. Johns Hopkins Hospital is just one of many private institutions that, in addition to all city agencies, recognizes and accepts the parish-issued ID.


Sacred Heart of Jesus mass
Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of Baltimore’s largest growing Catholic parishes.

It’s not limited only to parishioners and Catholics, either. Despite what many assume and what was reported by the Washington Post at the program’s start, the parish will issue an ID to anyone who asks for it, regardless of religious affiliation, as long as they present the required documents. 


Lewandowski explained that the city would not sign on in support of the program if it was limited just to Catholics, but further, that they chose not to make it exclusive because the program is in its essence about one thing – community building.


“We’re trying to build relationships with people,” he said. “We want to know who people are, and we want them to know us.” Lewandowski hopes that even something as simple as putting a name, address, and photograph of someone on an ID card who may not have access to another form of identification will empower them to step further out of the shadows.