Use What You Got: We already have a national ID-card system; now we should refine it

By Mark Krikorian on June 28, 2010

National Review, June 21, 2010

It’s not news that Americans have a deep-seated fear of efforts by the state to register and document the citizenry. During the 1996 immigration debate, open-borders activists lobbied Congress with bar-code tattoos on their forearms, implying that proposed identity-verification measures were akin to Nazi concentration-camp methods. Google “national ID” with “Nazi” and you get 50,000 hits. And, of course, Arizona’s recent legislation introducing into state law the existing federal document requirements for foreigners has spawned much demagoguery about the impending arrival of fascism.

This might seem to suggest that Americans are and will always be opposed to a national ID card. Yet they already have one, or at least something close enough for government work. You probably have it in your wallet right now. It’s called a driver’s license.

We use our driver’s licenses (or non-driver IDs, which are issued by almost all DMVs) every day — to board planes, enter office buildings, cash checks, even buy decongestant at the drugstore. Backed up by a Social Security number, it is the face of the United States’s national identification system. (The passport is a much more robust, and centrally run, form of ID, but only a small share — maybe 28 percent — of Americans have one.)

The reality is that in a modern society, some system of identification is essential. In earlier times, when virtually everyone lived and died within a radius of a few miles, there was no need for such a system — almost everyone you were ever likely to meet already knew your name, as well as your parents, your occupation, the location of your home, etc. There were few instances when it was necessary to prove your identity to strangers.

But that’s no longer the case, and it never will be again. One of the first steps toward differentiating and identifying large numbers of people came centuries ago (in most places) with the development of surnames, a process often initiated by the state. Later came other means, such as birth certificates, national pension and health-care systems, and so on.

In the centralized states of Europe, many governments developed national ID cards. In our country, consistent with our federal system, ID cards came from the bottom up, with the states issuing the first driver’s licenses about a century ago. These licenses were not originally intended as a form of identification, but people needed IDs in dealing with business and government, and the lack of alternatives combined with widespread automobile ownership made licenses the natural choice. The federal government did establish the Social Security number in the mid-1930s, but the Social Security card was and remains a flimsy piece of paper designed only to help the bearer remember his number, not to serve as a proof of identity.

In order to set minimum standards for this decentralized identification system (run by all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, etc.), Congress in 2005 passed the REAL ID Act. The law was prompted by the 9/11 Commission’s observation that “for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.” More specifically, it said: “Secure identification should begin in the United States. The federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of information, such as driver’s licenses.” After all, the 9/11 hijackers had between them 17 licenses and 13 non-driver state IDs, seven of them obtained by fraud in Virginia. Even some of the legitimately obtained licenses were duplicates, the same hijackers having been issued licenses by multiple states.

The REAL ID Act bars the issuance of licenses to illegal aliens or multiple licenses to the same person, links state databases to one another, requires the authentication of documents presented by applicants, mandates anti-fraud features in the cards themselves, and more. The implementation deadline has been pushed from 2008 to 2017, but after that point, the federal government will not recognize licenses issued by non-complying states — i.e., residents of those states will not be able to use their driver’s licenses to board planes or enter federal buildings. Despite opposition from some states and efforts in Congress to repeal the bill, the process is well under way.

While some resist efforts to improve and streamline our existing ID system, others push to scrap it entirely and replace it with a national ID card. The most recent manifestation of this sentiment is the Senate Democrats’ outline of an amnesty bill, sponsored by Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Robert Menendez. The substance of the plan is amnesty and increased immigration, but it makes a show of being tough on enforcement and in this vein requires the creation (within 18 months) of a new “fraud-proof Social Security card.” While ostensibly an improved version of the existing card, it would in fact be an entirely new kind of document: machine-readable and containing biometric elements (photo, fingerprints, iris scans) and a memory chip.

Yet we already have an ID infrastructure based on the driver’s license, and improving it, rather than devising a new system from scratch, should be our goal. An analogy can be made to Social Security: If we were designing a retirement system today, we certainly wouldn’t come up with anything like the current one. But we’re not in that position — we have to adapt the system we’ve inherited by, for instance, raising the retirement age or allowing a portion of contributions to be invested privately.

Although there certainly are immigration and security hawks who favor a unitary national ID, the energy behind the current push for one comes from those with a deep interest in ensuring the failure of border control. Chuck Schumer’s super-duper Social Security card is intended to work with a proposed “Biometric Enrollment, Locally-stored Information, and Electronic Verification of Employment” (BELIEVE) system to prevent illegal aliens from getting jobs. But just as the new card would replace the current longstanding ID arrangements, BELIEVE would replace the existing E-Verify system, an online method of checking legal status that has been developed over a decade and a half and is now used to screen perhaps one-fourth of all new hires.

One might charitably conclude that this whole push for a new ID card and a new verification system is an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. That in itself would be enough to make it anti-conservative in its approach. But given that Chuck Schumer was one of the architects of the last amnesty when he was still in the House, why would anyone believe that his promises of enforcement are serious this time around? It seems quite clear that this latest push for a national ID card is both a diversion and a delaying tactic: a plan to divert attention from the real goal of amnesty, and to delay any effective enforcement of immigration laws as long as possible while the new verification system is developed.

To paraphrase a wise man, you go with the ID system you have, not the ID system you might want. An increasingly secure driver’s license in the hand is better than two “fraud-proof Social Security cards” in the bush.