A decision last week by Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission preserves, at least for the time being, a controversial pact of confidentiality between the city of New Haven and thousands of undocumented immigrants who hold municipal identification cards allowing them access to banks and public services.

The July 9 ruling marked success for a pro bono team of lawyers from Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson on behalf of the immigrants.

Fried Frank litigation partner Debra M. Torres and her team – associates Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Jennifer Kim and Catherine Meza and summer associates Kelly Jo Karneeb and Michael Kleinman – are now players in what Columbia Law School Professor Nathaniel Persily calls an “ongoing national debate over the nexus of immigration, citizenship and national security.”

The legal dimension of the debate, said Mr. Persily, is largely being held in venues such as the Connecticut commission, or in state and municipal courts. Advocates for immigrants, said Professor Susan Bryant of the City University of New York School of Law, tend to be young attorneys such as the Fried Frank associates and clinical students.

“It’s my first experience doing this kind of thing,” said Ms. Torres, who expects her adversaries to appeal the commission’s decision through the state courts. “It’s a compelling case.”

Ms. Torres and her team entered the New Haven case as counsel for Unidad Latina en Acción, a New Haven community group and intervenor in the complaint filed against Mayor John DeStefano Jr. by Dustin W. Gold, a graphic designer by profession and chief strategist of the Community Watchdog Project of Northford, and Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, a daily newspaper published in Manchester.

Messrs. Gold and Powell call for public disclosure of the names and addresses of some 5,000 New Haven residents issued special identification cards since the program, the nation’s first such special identification initiative, began last July.

Mr. Gold said in an interview that “government transparency” is his sole interest in public disclosure of the applicants. Disclosure, said Mr. Powell, could assist federal authorities in conducting “calm” inquiries about the immigration status of applicants, as opposed to what he called a “terrorizing” sweep of New Haven businesses last year by officers of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement.

But Ms. Torres claimed the pair’s attempt was to make a “political point by putting people’s safety and privacy in jeopardy.”

Mr. Espinoza-Madrigal, a Fried Frank associate under the firm’s Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund fellowship program, first brought the matter to Ms. Torres’ attention.

“I’ve always thought that it was important to be able to help newcomers in this country,” said Mr. Espinoza-Madrigal, 28, who emigrated to the United States from Costa Rica at age 9. “That’s what took me to law school.”

Jennifer Kim, his fellow New York University School of Law graduate, signed on to the Fried Frank team due to her student interest in international human rights.

“I was particularly interested in the New Haven case,” said Ms. Kim, 26, “as an opportunity to work with individuals, as opposed to policy.”

Catherine Meza, 33, said she joined Fried Frank with an interest in doing pro bono civil rights work and found the New Haven case “important because it could have widespread impact.”

In fact, said Ms. Meza, who was born to Peruvian and Chilean parents, the Fried Frank team has shared its research in the New Haven case with pro bono lawyers in San Francisco set to represent undocumented immigrants in proceedings there involving a similar I.D. card program.

Research duty fell to summer associates Kelly Jo Karneeb, 24, of St. John’s University School of Law, and Michael Kleinman, 25, of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. They were assisted by Fried Frank paralegals Rebekah Saidman-Krauss and Ross Spier.

Ms. Karneeb was randomly assigned to the New Haven case on her first day at Fried Frank. Her interest in immigration and civil rights work was so sparked that she has volunteered for a two-week stint in Harlingen, Texas, as part of the firm’s pro bono representation of asylum seekers in U.S. Immigration Court.

As a Cardozo Law student, Mr. Kleinman has been involved in volunteer legal work on behalf of New Orleans residents hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Controversial Program

The Elm City Resident Card program, reflecting New Haven’s nickname, provides second-form identification for anyone who applies, with no questions asked regarding citizenship or immigration status.

The year-long debate over the plan has gone beyond political differences to physical intimidation, according to affidavits prepared by the Fried Frank team, online diatribes and what many regard as death threats from, among others, right-wing radio personality Hal Turner.

“I would laugh if a slew of patriots got in their cars, drove up to the New Haven Municipal Building with machine guns and ammunition and opened fire on the lines of illegal aliens standing there,” according to the transcript of a July 2007 syndicated broadcast by Mr. Turner from New Jersey. “[They] deserve to be killed, and so does the mayor and City Council of New Haven Connecticut for siding with the illegals.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, Mr. Turner acknowledged the gist of his remarks and added, “The government of New Haven should be taken out and killed as [the] domestic enemies to this nation that they are.”

Mr. Gold said that “stupid comments from people like Hal Turner are causing us the most trouble.” But his own rhetoric appears in a Fried Frank brief. Speaking of his affiliation with Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform, Mr. Gold boasted in a public hearing of having several dozen “boots on the ground.”

Mr. Powell, who has published a number of editorials opposing the identity card program, said in an interview that New Haven officials “made a choice whether to resist illegal immigration or facilitate it.” He suggested the latter option now puts the city in the position of “undermining the nation.”

In an editorial Saturday, Mr. Powell wrote, “[T]he arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden himself already could have obtained a New Haven city ID card and Connecticut’s homeland security department would not know about it.”

The Connecticut commission’s decision, he added, was a “tortuous construction of the law . . . of interest mainly to lawyers.”

Messrs. Powell and Gold were not represented by attorneys during the commission proceedings. At earlier stages, the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Law Reform Institute had provided them pro bono counsel. The institute withdrew its representation, said Mr. Gold, due to “some disagreements about the way we wanted to handle some things.” He declined to elaborate.

U.S. Government ‘Failure’

Professor Bryant, who has taught at CUNY Law’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Clinic, suggested that stridency arises in public discussion of immigration policy due to a “failure of the federal government to create realistic solutions to a national problem.”

“So we see municipalities acting in two different ways – some trying to expand rights, and others trying to enact very coercive measures,” said Ms. Bryant. The fact is, she added, “Immigrant workers are in this country performing jobs that everybody wants them to perform.”

Professor Persily of Columbia Law said confidentiality is a key privacy component of New Haven’s program.

“There are all kinds of lists of people that governments don’t make available to public view,” he said. “We don’t turn over the U.S. Census, for instance, or lists of people in public hospices.”

In his June 25 report, upheld by a 3-1 vote of his colleagues last week in Hartford, Connecticut Freedom of Information Commissioner Sherman D. London found that “under the extraordinary facts and circumstances of this case, the . . . city has met its burden of proof that the records requested by the complainant are permissively exempt from mandatory disclosure” due to public safety risk.

New Haven’s I.D. cards are available for $10 and include the holder’s name, address and photograph. They have the support of the New Haven Police Department as a crime reduction measure, as well as increasing confidence in the police among immigrants.

According to testimony by a commanding officer in a largely immigrant neighborhood, the card program allows holders to open bank accounts rather than keep cash on their persons. Muggers in New Haven, the officer said, call immigrants “walking ATM machines.”

- Thomas Adcock can be reached at Thomas.Adcock@incisivemedia.com.