States from Maine to Montana are rebelling against a federal law meant to make driver's licenses a definitive form of identification, an issue that cuts across flash points of homeland security, civil liberties, and illegal immigration.
Legislators in 15 states are pushing bills and resolutions that urge noncompliance with the 2005 Real ID Act. The law, based on recommendations by the 9/11 commission, sets minimum standards for verifying the identity of license applicants, and stipulates what information must be stored on machine-readable cards.
The law is intended to make it harder for terrorists to operate on American soil and for illegal immigrants to get legitimate employment in the US.
But as the 2008 deadline for implementation nears, the Real ID law is raising a host of concerns: cost, hassle for millions of drivers, and fear that government or private industry will misuse the data network. Opponents as divergent as states' rights politicians, civil libertarians, and immigration advocates are rallying to undo it.
"When we call around the country, we get Democrats to join [against it], we get Republicans. In one state, they were fighting to see which party was going to file the [anti-Real ID] legislation," says James Guest (R), a state representative in Missouri. He is at the center of a loose coalition of lawmakers in 34 states who are filing measures opposing Real ID.
Maine's legislature fired the opening salvo last month in adopting a resolution of noncompliance – a position that, if carried out, could eventually impair Mainers' ability to easily board airplanes, open bank accounts, or enter federal buildings. The Montana House went further by actually prohibiting implementation.
Frustration over "a large unfunded mandate" is the first complaint of Massachusetts state Sen. Richard Moore (D), who has filed a noncompliance resolution similar to one in New Mexico.
Such lawmaker concerns stem from a September study by state government associations that put the price tag for implementing the Real ID law at $11 billion – much more than the $100 million Congress had estimated. So far, Congress has allocated $40 million to the project.
To arrive at that figure, the study assumed that everyone with a driver's license – all 245 million of them – must be recredentialed within five years of May 2008, the federal deadline for compliance. That would require each individual to visit a division of motor vehicles (DMV), paperwork in hand, and mandates the DMV to verify each identification document with the agency that issued it. There are about 16,000 issuers of birth certificates alone.
"States will feel the wrath of the driving public," says Senator Moore. "Our hope is [that], with the change in the majority in Congress, ... folks [will] take another look at it ... or come up with the money."
Opponents in the US Senate say they will press for changes to the law.
One congressional backer of Real ID, Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R) of Wisconsin, says delays at the Department of Homeland Security in drafting the regulations have led people to jump to wrong conclusions about cost and intent.
"They're seeing this as a national ID card. It's a case of the far left and the far right joining in the middle. It's not a national ID card," he says. "Those that are talking about $11 billion are Chicken Little types saying that the sky is falling.... Until the regulations are finalized, they don't know exactly what they need to do."
Homeland Security plans to release the regulations in coming weeks. All eyes are on a few specifics, such as how identification documents will be verified by DMVs and whether the cards will be required to include fingerprints or other biometrics.
Mr. Sensenbrenner and other Real ID supporters say the law tightens a system that allowed some of the 9/11 hijackers to get driver's licenses, and thereby board planes, despite being in the US illegally. It also is expected to curb the hiring of illegal immigrants who rely on fake driver's licenses to feign legal residency.
"Congress needs to stand its ground. Driver's licenses are our de facto national ID system, but ... it's decentralized," says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates low immigration levels. "States have to meet certain minimum standards."
The ID system will not create new federal or private databases, says a Homeland Security spokesman. It will require only that states' driver's license databases can talk to one another so that drivers can't obtain multiple IDs in many states.
But civil libertarians argue that 50 interconnected state databases are not tangibly different from one national database. Their concern is that the US government would use the standardized licenses to cross-reference against other databases – and that people would be tracked by Uncle Sam at every turn.
There are concerns, too, that private companies could use them to build databases.
The information to be contained on the cards is valuable, says Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Everybody and their uncle is going to want to 'swipe' that information off the card," he says. Existing shields on releasing motor vehicle information will be undermined, he says, if the machine- readable cards are not encrypted. Sensenbrenner says he supports encrypting the cards; Homeland Security won't comment.
Under Real ID, licenses must have valid names, home addresses, birth dates, signatures, and high-quality photographs.
Privacy experts worry that businesses other than bars and airports will ask people to electronically swipe their ID cards. Privacy laws must be expanded first, some say, because this ID system would increase the damage from identity theft.