Libertad, whose name means freedom, is a woman of good humour and infectious smiles. But when she talks about the day her daughter called to tell her she had not been able to get a job at McDonald’s because she did not have a government-issued ID, Libertad’s eyes well up and her face crumples.

Libertad, 47—whose last name has been withheld so as not to expose her to possible deportation—and her daughter are two of New York City’s estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants. Thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Barack Obama in 2012, which permitted undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to apply for exemption from deportation for two years, Libertad’s daughter is now eligible to get a state-issued ID. But for the undocumented like Libertad who came to the United States as adults and are not covered by President Obama’s immigration executive order announced last month, New York City’s forthcoming municipal ID card program may be their best path to obtain legitimate identification. The program, which was passed by the City Council in June and recently branded “IDNYC,” will make government-issued ID cards available starting in January 2015 to all New Yorkers regardless of resident status.

The scope of the card is limited. It does not make the undocumented eligible to receive a driver’s license or change their resident status. Still, immigrant advocacy groups in the city believe its impact will be substantial.

“When the police stop you, the onus is on you to prove who you are,” said Harpreet Singh Toor, a Sikh community leader who works with undocumented immigrants. “It’s especially a problem when there is a language barrier.”

Undocumented immigrants are vulnerable to being detained and having to stay overnight in prison because they cannot prove who they are, said Anthony Perez of Faith in New York, a federation of congregations. Future undocumented people stopped by the police will soon be able to show their IDNYC.

Even those immigrants who already possess some form of identification, such as a passport from another country or the $465 work authorization card immigrants covered by DACA carry, will find using an IDNYC a boon, advocacy groups maintain.

“Having more than one form of ID is never a bad thing,” said the New York Immigration Coalition’s Elizabeth Plum, who points to the great danger of misplacing one’s ID when a person has no backup. Plum applauds the New York City government for creating a program she believes is safe, secure and accessible for all New Yorkers.

Beyond providing its bearer with a degree of protection, IDNYC can change lives in other ways. Libertad came to America from Ecuador with the dream of being a cosmetologist—a dream she had to abandon without the government-issued photo ID required to take the exam to earn her license to practice. Her IDNYC will now allow her to start down the path toward achieving her goal.

Shamsher, 44 (whose last name has been withheld, like the other undocumented immigrants in this story), is a member of the Sikh community in Queens and works for a construction company. He hopes to join a labor union once he gets his ID card, in part because he had no recourse those times various past employers did not give him wages he was owed.

To ensure the proposed rules addressed numerous concerns of undocumented New Yorkers like Shamsher, the city conducted months of outreach to advocacy groups. In October the New York City Human Resources Administration held a public hearing to give those in charge of the program, including Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Nisha Agarwal, a chance to listen to comments on the suggested guidelines. Groups including the New York Immigration Coalition, the Center for Popular Democracy and the New York Civil Liberties Union were concerned that documents initially provided by applicants were to be stored on file for two years, making them available to law enforcement agencies such as the NYPD, FBI and Homeland Security without requiring a warrant to access them. Ultimately the city decided to disallow such records from being available to law enforcement agencies without a warrant.

Another concern advocacy groups brought up was that expired documents would not be accepted as proof of identity to get an IDNYC.

Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the eligibility requirements for the IDNYC on Dec. 5. The new eligibility rules allow expired passports to be accepted as proof of identity three years after their expiration date. The new rules operate on a point system similar to that used by the Department of Motor Vehicles; expired documents will be worth two points toward the four points necessary to qualify, while a valid foreign passport will be worth three.

Renewing a foreign passport while in the U.S. illegally does not always present a problem; some countries’ consulates enable them to do so. Fifty-two-year-old Alma, who cleans homes on the Upper West Side for a living, came to the U.S. from Mexico on a tourist visa 22 years ago to escape gang violence. She has always had her Mexican passport to show as proof of identity, allowing her to open bank accounts, get a credit card and enter government buildings. These privileges are currently unavailable to undocumented people from countries such as India and Nepal, whose consulates refuse to renew the passports of those staying in the U.S. illegally. Alma’s daughter, who was born in the states, will turn 21 soon, making Alma ineligible for President Obama’s provisional deferred deportation offer to parents of children who are U.S. citizens.

The IDNYC rules do present a new wrinkle for those without valid passports, ironically making it more difficult for undocumenteds who most desperately require a municipal ID card. This challenge has led the city to add a few more documents to the list of those accepted as proof of identity, including a handwritten lease (one point), mobile food vending unit license (two points) and an NYC Department of Parks and Recreation-issued recreation center membership card (one point).

The move toward municipal IDs is an effort by the city to reaffirm New York’s historic reputation as a port of entry for outsiders. While there have been discussions about the stigma that may accompany the card if legal citizens do not register for one themselves, Libertad insists she is not going to feel marked by it. If anything, she feels it will be the source of more equality.

As Alma puts it, “With an ID card I can prove that I am a New Yorker. It won’t be important if you’re undocumented or a citizen—you’re a New Yorker.”