The Real ID Law—Real Big Brother

Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at

In May a dangerous federal law was tacked quietly onto a spending bill for the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and for tsunami relief. The REAL ID Act, which requires states to comply by May 2008, will turn state driver's licenses effectively into a national ID card—making it much easier for the government to keep and use information on millions of people. And it will force undocumented immigrants further into the shadows.

The law was passed and signed by President Bush despite opposition from hundreds of immigrants rights groups, as well as civil libertarians, state legislatures, and even many of the senators and members of Congress who voted for the spending bill.

Under the current legal system, the federal government cannot tell states how to issue drivers' licenses. But with the Real ID Act, if state licenses do not meet the strict federal requirements, those licenses will be useless—people who have them could not fly, apply for passports, or enter federal buildings requiring "valid" ID (so much for "states' rights").

If this law takes full effect (it is expected to be challenged by state and court cases) people applying for driver's licenses will have to show a birth certificate, a Social Security number, proof of citizenship or legal residence, and proof of "physical address." No state currently has all of these requirements. In addition, the documentation must be verified by the agency that issued them—akin to a mini background check by the DMV.

The government will have mouse-click access to information about where people live, their citizenship status, and where they were born—along with all the original documents. All this in turn is linked to other government databases. This amounts to a ready pool of information that could be called up to target people for interrogation, monitoring, or round-ups in a qualitatively higher way than has ever existed within the U.S.—and possibly anywhere in the world.

The bill requires licenses to have "common machine-readable technology"—which means that stores, banks, and airlines may increasingly demand to scan the card, resulting in your license holding information about your activities, purchases, and travel. Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty program, told CNet: "It's going to be not just a national ID card but a national database." The Electronic Frontier Foundation said that the Act "paves the way for the federal government to force every state to put radio-frequency identification [RFID] chips into their ID cards"— which means that your license itself could be used to track your movements and your location.

Under this law, anyone applying for a license is subject to having a background check against law enforcement databases— meaning that if an applicant has an arrest warrant, going to the DMV could end up in a trip to jail. Alabama, which already runs such background checks, brags that it has arrested 5,000 people yearly with this policy.

With the stroke of a pen this law also eliminates the ability for undocumented workers to get a driver's license in the U.S. People would not be able to obtain a license unless they can prove they have citizenship or "legal" permission to be in the U.S. But there is an entire category of immigrants who often have to wait years for the Department of Homeland Security to formalize their legal status—asylum seekers, people who have run into some snag in their citizenship application, immigrants who came here on one kind of visa and are now applying for another. Applicants for a license might have their information checked against a national immigration database. So, for example, someone whose green card has expired but who hasn't gotten their citizenship yet could get deported when they visit the DMV.

Some states might start issuing "driving certificates" for undocumented immigrants, like those currently issued in Tennessee and Utah. A spokesperson for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights told Revolution that these certificates are like having a "scarlet letter" on your driver's license. In Tennessee, the certificates are not valid for anything but driving, and anyone who has one is branded immediately as a "non-citizen." Immigrants have complained of unfair treatment as soon as they showed this ID at a bank or to a cop. Such "second tier" licenses could also provide the government with a quickly accessible database of "non-citizens."

The law's sponsor declared that the law would make people safer from "terrorist" attacks. But in reality, the REAL ID Act gives this government radically new Big-Brother-power over many millions of people.