Americans face stricter ID checks

From driver's licenses, to passports, to plane tickets, the paperwork necessary to enter and move about America may soon be subject to more restrictive rules - all in the name of homeland security.

In some cases (licenses) the paperwork may be difficult to get. In others (passports) it may have to be proffered more often. These changes, added together, may have the biggest effect on Americans' routines of any made for security's sake since the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

Some analysts say that the changes are more oriented toward controlling illegal immigration than fighting terrorism. Others argue that those two efforts are inextricably linked - and that the US has to start somewhere, given the number of undocumented people that cross the nation's borders every year.

"Unless we discourage people from entering the US, our border security problem is unsolvable," says James Jay Carafano, senior fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

The prospective change that may affect the most people is probably the move to make it more difficult to obtain driver's licenses. Historically, the rules and regulations surrounding driver registration have been left to the states, which issue some 70 million licenses a year. Today, getting one usually requires simply proof of age, plus a few other basic forms of ID.

Under the terms of the Real ID Act, currently attached to the $81 million emergency spending plan for Iraq and Afghanistan, applicants for driver licenses would be required to prove that they are in the country legally. They would also have to provide a valid Social Security number, home address, and photo identification.

The Real ID measure was attached to the supplemental spending bill only after weeks of wrangling between House and Senate negotiators. It could clear both chambers as early as next week.

Not that this tightening is uncontroversial. Far from it - it has been decried as everything from a back-door attempt to establish a national ID card, to a method of making US roads less safe, via forcing undocumented workers further underground.

It is much more an anti-immigrant move than an antiterrorism one, according to Juliette Kayyem, a security expert at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Some of the Sept. 11 hijackers would still have qualified for licenses under this new rule, Ms. Kayyem points out. There are other homeland security changes she would set as having higher priority - such as getting the FBI a computer system that works.

"In an ideal world, in which information flowed smoothly, I guess the [licensing change] could have some effect," says Kayyem.

But the driver's licenses might not be the only thing that will soon take more documents to obtain. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has announced that it will require airlines to ask for passengers' full names and birth dates when selling tickets.

Ticket-buyers won't actually be required to provide this information. But if they don't, there will be a much better chance of their being pulled aside for extra security checks before being allowed to board.

The change should help keep people from being confused with others who have the same or a similar name and are on terrorist watch lists, said TSA officials. It will also help them implement Secure Flight, a computerized passenger screening program set to enter tests this August.

In addition to all this, new rules proposed by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security would eventually require Americans returning from nearby destinations, such as Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, to proffer their passports upon reentry. Previously, returning from these destinations did not require such documentation.

Under the rules - which are now in a comment phase, and have yet to be adopted - US travelers coming from the Caribbean and Panama would need passports beginning next January 1. A similar requirement for return from Canada and Mexico would be phased in over subsequent years.

Cruise lines and other modes of travel to the popular warm islands just south of the US are particularly unhappy about this prospective change.

In some ways, the total effect of all this tightening is beside the point, argues Mr. Carafano of the Heritage Foundation.

Requiring ID to get a driver's license might not by itself snag the next Mohammed Atta. But it is a step the US has to take as it moves inevitably toward keeping greater track of who is in the country.

"Is digging a hole in the ground going to give you a home to live in? No," says Carafano. "But you have to dig a hole to lay the foundation."

Among other changes he would recommend is establishment of a simple method for employers to check whether potential employees have a right to work in the US.

Kayyem of the JFK School, for her part, thinks making sure police and fire departments across the nation can talk to each other should be a high priority homeland security change. The method for distributing federal homeland security dollars should also do a better job of steering money where it's truly needed, she says.

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