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Real ID will divide us all into documented and undocumented

Real ID will divide us all into documented and undocumented
A sign for the real I.D. at the Glendale, CA DMV. (Los Angeles Times)

I got my driver’s license renewal notice from the DMV the other day. This time, I was informed, I’d have to renew in person, although I could make the process easier by completing my application online. When I tried, however, I got an error message. I could not submit an online application if I wanted a license that was also a Real ID.

If you don’t know about Real ID, you’re not alone. It was mandated in 2005 by Congress after the 9/11 Commission recommended federal standards for identification. But the whole notion of a national-type ID card was derided by civil libertarians and privacy activists — rightly, I’d suggest — as un-American.

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Real IDs carry the same information as your old driver’s license, along with a variety of safeguards to make them more difficult to counterfeit. To receive one, however, you must meet a new federal standard proving you are who you say you are and you live where you say you do.

Real ID won’t make us safer, it will only divide us.


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In July 2017, then-Homeland Security director John Kelly announced a 2020 deadline for compliance. “It is a critically important 9/11 Commission recommendation that others have been willing to ignore,” Kelly scolded, “but I will not.”

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Just what every Californian needs: More complications at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Here is a list of what I was told to bring to my appointment: an identity document, such as a passport or a certified birth certificate; verification of my SSN in the form of a Social Security card or an income tax return; and proof of California residence — a utility bill, for instance, with my name and address.

As it happens, I have these items, although I’m not thrilled about showing my taxes to the DMV when the president hasn’t done the same to the American people.

But what about those who can’t put their hands on such documents? Passports are expensive: $110 for the application and an additional $35 “execution fee.” And let’s be honest, “identity documents” have everything to do with citizenship and immigration status. (If you weren’t born in the U.S., you have to provide a certificate of naturalization or a green card equivalent.) As for proof of residence, that will be hard to produce for those who can’t afford a stable living situation, who stay with friends or family, or pay weekly or monthly rates at a motel.

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There is an option: Get an un-enhanced license. California, along with many other states, still offers licenses that are “non-compliant,” although after October 2020, they won’t be accepted at airports or get you into many federal buildings — courthouses, for example. Over time, who knows who else will demand Real ID. Employers? States that pass voter ID laws?

So, let’s review. As of 2020, if you want to travel within your own country by air, you will have to have Real ID or a passport. If you want an ID that isn’t stamped “Federal limits apply,” you will have to document your legality.

The government expressly claims this isn’t a national identification system, but please: You either will have the proper “papers” or you won’t.

“A federal law that aims to conscript the states into creating a national ID system … is precisely the kind of scheme that the framers expected that federalism would guard against,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the World Privacy Forum argued in 2007 against the first iteration of the law.

Equally troubling is the further development of what we might call a two-tier America, based on immigration status and economic opportunity. Even the Department of Homeland Security acknowledges that noncompliant IDs could be a red flag for discrimination.

“DHS cautions against assuming that possession of a noncompliant card indicates the holder is an undocumented individual,” reads the answer to an FAQ on the agency’s website.

The issue is particularly relevant in California, where by law more than a million residents who are in the country illegally have already gotten driver’s licenses. This is good policy, enhancing road safety among other benefits. Can anyone question that it will be compromised by IDs that single out citizens and legal immigrants by design?

Not long after the attack on the twin towers, I saw a news report in which a man stood in a security line at LAX and complained about having to show ID at all. “This is America,” he said. No one had the heart to tell him America had changed.

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Without Real ID, the U.S. has not experienced another 9/11-scale attack, and terrorism remains (thankfully, fortunately) an abstraction to most of us. If another strike is brewing, IDs will not protect us. The 9/11 hijackers, remember, had passports, and all but one had legal visas that would have allowed them to travel freely in the United States even under Real ID rules.

Real ID won’t make us safer, it will only divide us. “Federal limits apply”? Can there be a redder flag in these dark and distrustful times?

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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