REAL ID Shell Game

16 01 2008

Cross Posted at

On January 18, the Department of Homeland Security issued a new set of regulations for state driver’s licenses and other forms of identification acceptable to federal agencies, in accordance with the controversial REAL ID Act of 2005.

Since the original May 2008 deadline for REAL ID compliance would have been impossible for states to meet, DHS offered lengthy extension periods. States that apply for the waiver will have to offer compliant licenses by May 11, 2014 for persons 50 and younger. For those 50 and older, the deadline is December 1, 2017.

DHS says assigning separate dates for compliance for these two different age groups will ease the costs and administrative burdens on state motor vehicles departments. DHS still estimates, however, that it will cost as much as $10 billion to implement the law.

Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, praised the new timeline for providing flexibility for states yet to comply with the REAL ID Act (which is most of the country). Critics of the ruling, however, have noted how the new timeline simply amounts to a strategy of delaying an unpopular and imperfect piece of legislation for future presidents to confront.

Under the REAL ID Act, all state issued driver’s licenses must include a set of standardized information, including digitized photographs and signatures. More controversially, it also mandates the verification of an applicant’s immigration status, background checks on documents used to prove identity, and the creation of a large inter-state database of license records.

At the press conference, Secretary Chertoff argued that the REAL ID Act still remains an important tool to prevent undocumented immigrants from perpetuating identity theft and from remaining the country illegally. He also pointed to how it would make it difficult for future terrorists to organize another 9/11-style terrorist attack.

“There are three categories of people who will be very unhappy about secure driver’s licenses: terrorists, some people who want to get on airplanes and federal buildings and avoid terrorist watch lists; illegal immigrants who want to work in this country by pretending to be American citizens; and con men,” said Chertoff at the January 18 press conference.

But civil and immigrant rights groups have pointed to the discriminatory effects of enacting the REAL ID Act. Opponents of the law say that by linking immigration status to driver’s licenses, the nation is essentially adopting an internal passport and national ID card that will adversely affect the poor, people of color, and immigrants. Getting a birth certificate, a key document for obtaining a driver’s license, may prove difficult for even native born citizens since they can be costly and require travel across states. Immigrants often possess foreign documents, some of which are unusable under the REAL ID Act, and will likely encounter difficulty in receiving drivers licenses as well.

Additionally, given DHS backlogs in processing immigration applications, it is not uncommon for authorized immigrants to possess expired immigration documents. In addition, federal agencies are known for having high error rates in their databases, including misspelled names, hyphenated names, and they are frequently poor at matching names with addresses – a requirement for REAL ID compliance.

According to Rob Randhava of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, “REAL ID bars states from issuing REAL ID to noncitizens who cannot prove their immigration status, but because federal databases are notoriously incomplete and erroneous, many legal noncitizens could wrongfully be turned down at state department of motor vehicles. We can expect the law to drive countless numbers of immigrants further underground.”

Note: Click here to check out the status of the Real ID Act in your state.

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