A REAL Solution: The Safe Side of the ID Debate

By Mark Krikorian on March 22, 2005

National Review Online, March 22, 2005

When Mexican President Vicente Fox visits President Bush's ranch Wednesday, he is sure to complain about his host's support for the REAL ID Act, which effectively bans driver's licenses for illegal aliens. The House appended the measure last week to the supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq operations, guaranteeing a Senate debate on the issue. It's likely that there will be another showdown between the two houses of Congress like the one that took place last fall over the intelligence reform bill.

Originally approved by the House in February by a 100-vote margin (with only eight Republicans opposed), the REAL ID Act (H.R. 418) would, among other things, establish certain minimum standards for states if they want their driver's licenses or non-driver IDs to be accepted for federally mandated purposes, such as boarding a plane or entering a federal facility. The standards include verifying the legal status of the applicant, setting the license of a foreign visitor to expire when his visa expires, verifying documents presented by applicants, and modernizing the technology used in licenses.

Some libertarians have denounced the license requirements as the precursor to a national ID card. The Wall Street Journal helpfully invoked the Gestapo by decrying the bill's "show-us-your-papers" approach. Rep. Ron Paul (R., Tex.), God bless him, called the bill "a Soviet-style internal passport system." And the ACLU said it's "laying the foundation" for a national ID card.

Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty, so extra sensitivity to proposals like the REAL ID Act is all to the good. But after a close look, it should be clear there is no national ID card lurking in this bill; after all, Phyllis Schlafly sure wouldn't support it if there were.

But there's more. It's not just that the bill wouldn't establish a national ID; by making our existing, decentralized identification arrangements more secure, the REAL ID Act is the only thing that can stop a national ID card.

The need for more security in our existing document system was highlighted by the 9/11 Commission: "The federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driver's licenses. Fraud in identification documents is no longer just a problem of theft. At many entry points to vulnerable facilities, including gates for boarding aircraft, sources of identification are the last opportunity to ensure that people are who they say they are and to check whether they are terrorists." (see Chapter 12, p. 390.)

At least two of the 9/11 hijackers had overstayed their visas, and thus their state-issued IDs should have expired. As legal means of entry become increasingly difficult for terrorists, they will seek to enter illegally (as suggested by persistent intelligence reports), making access to government-issued IDs all the more important. In fact, just last week, the 9/11 Commission's counsel told the Senate Judiciary Committee of al Qaeda operative Nabil Al-Marabh, who sneaked illegally over the Canadian border in mid-2001 and was found to have received five Michigan licenses in 13 months, plus licenses from Massachusetts, Illinois, and Florida.

Nor is this laxity purely a Sept. 10 phenomenon; our state-based identification system remains in serious trouble. The Coalition for a Secure Driver's License cleverly has ranked the states according to the Homeland Security Department's color-coding system, with too many states still in the red, "severe risk" category. Some continuing problems: Over the past six years, Utah has issued 56,498 driver licenses and 37,481 non-driver IDs to people without Social Security numbers - i.e. illegal aliens. In New York State, one Social Security number was used to get 57 driver's licenses. And it came to light just last week that an illegal alien in Florida presented a driver's license so he could go to work - at a nuclear power plant.

After 9/11, calls for a national ID card were widespread; from 9/11 until the end of 2001, there were almost three times as many Nexis hits for "national ID" as there were for all of 2000. As the Washington Post wrote in December 2001, "Almost from the day the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, members of Congress, security experts and high-tech executives have endorsed the idea of some new form of identification system as a critical weapon in the fight against terrorism."

In the wake of another attack the momentum could be politically irresistible, unless the public was satisfied that improvements to our existing system were already under way. And there might well be less resistance among lawmakers anyway, since most Democratic congressmen (and too many Republicans) don't really want the borders to be controlled in the first place; so the development of a federally issued universal ID would be an attractive alternative for politicians wanting to appear responsive to the Islamist threat.

Some of the bill's opponents seem especially out of touch. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, wrote, "It's not hard to imagine these de facto national ID cards turning into a kind of domestic passport that U.S. citizens would be asked to produce for everyday commercial and financial tasks." The Journal's editorial writers must not get out much, because regular people have been producing government-issued photo IDs "for everyday commercial and financial tasks" for a very long time. The choice is not between the minimum standards in the REAL ID Act, on the one hand, and on the other, some libertarian utopia where no one knows your name. The choice we are faced with is a tightening of our current, decentralized system of identification, or the eventual demand by a frightened public for a genuine, centralized national ID system.

This isn't the first time the libertarians have fought improvements in ID security. Congress in 1996 actually passed some minimal standards for licenses, but as the implementation deadline approached two years later, then-Rep. Bob Barr (R., Ga.) led the effort to kill the measure. And the president's initial 2002 border security proposal also had such standards in it, but they were pronounced dead on arrival by then Majority Leader Dick Armey (R., Tex.).

So once again, libertarian ideologues are objective allies of big government, trying to block the limited reforms that are the only way to stave off the more sweeping measures favored by the Left.

As genuine conservatives stand athwart history and yell "stop," we need to offer an alternative. The REAL ID Act is the only alternative to a national ID card.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.