KENMORE, WASH. — "May I see some identification, please?" asked a retail clerk taking my check. "Certainly," I said, and handed the woman my Hong Kong identity card. She looked at it blankly for a moment then said, "Can I see some other kind of identification?"
Sometimes when I'm feeling cranky or mischievous, I hand over my Hong Kong ID card when I need to produce some kind of identification.
Why not? It's a perfectly valid document. It has my photograph on it. I know of no law that specifies that my Washington state driver's license has become a national ID card. At least not yet.
The US is groping toward a national ID card system, compelled both by worries about security in an age of terrorism and the need to control immigration. But Congress is going about it in the wrong way by trying to elevate state driver's licenses to some kind of national identity card.
Call me too literal, but a driver's license is for driving. Identity verification is something else. Why should citizenship be confused with a demonstrated ability to parallel park?
This seems to be a typical half measure. We've clearly developed a need for some kind of identification card to cash checks, to board airplanes, even to enter a federal building to pick up tax forms. But because nobody actually has to have a driver's license, we kid ourselves that it is still voluntary.
I lived for 16 years in Hong Kong, where everybody over a certain age must obtain an ID card and carry it at all times. I never considered this a serious infringement on my freedom, although it certainly was a hassle to go down to obtain one (and to replace one when lost).
The identity card system long predated the recent concerns over terrorism. In Hong Kong it is used primarily to control illegal immigration into the territory, something that is of concern because, being a rich territory, it is a magnet for immigrants from all over the region, especially from across the border in mainland China.
The Hong Kong police can and do stop people at random and ask them to produce their ID cards. It is not uncommon on the streets to see a couple of policemen huddled around a young Chinese man, inspecting his ID.
That this involves racial profiling is undeniable. In my 16 years there, I never once was asked by a policeman to produce my card. It was assumed, usually correctly, that being a Westerner I had entered on a valid work permit.
Of course, I had to produce my ID, or at least provide the number on it, numerous times during the week in the ordinary course of living, from opening a bank account to applying for a job, to voting (yes, foreigners do vote in Hong Kong elections if they've been there long enough).
Creating a national card, probably issued through the Department of Homeland Security, would lift a burden from state motor-vehicle authorities that they were never intended or equipped to shoulder.
It would end the debilitating arguments over whether illegal aliens should have driver's licenses.
With a proper ID system, legal resident aliens could apply for driver's licenses like everybody else. Why shouldn't your Guatemalan nanny have a driver's license to drive the kids to school so long as she is in this country on a valid work permit?
In Hong Kong, ID cards are issued to everyone, whether or not they are born there, have permanent residentcy (analogous to citizenship), or are on short-term work contracts, like the tens of thousands of domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines.
In the same way, a national identity card is also a requisite if this country is to have any kind of orderly guest-worker program.
A standardized, secure national ID card issued by the federal government is essential for controlling immigration in this country.
In short: It's the way it's done. Anybody who is opposed to issuing these cards may have reasonable grounds to do so, but they should stop complaining about "securing our borders."
• Todd Crowell, who has contributed to the Monitor from Asia, is a Seattle-area journalist.