Politics & Policy

I Want My Real Id

Immigration enthusiasts are howling about the immigration-security provisions of the Real ID Act, which is part of the Iraq-funding bill the House is expected to vote on today. Their opposition alone would be enough to recommend the measure; but the substance is also compelling.

As its name suggests, the key element of Real ID is establishing federal minimum standards for the driver’s licenses and non-driver IDs issued by the states. Such a reform was specifically highlighted in the 9/11 Commission’s report, and with good reason.

No one seeking to open a bank account, rent a truck, board a plane, or enter a nuclear-power plant can do so without ID, because the mobility and anonymity of modern society make it imperative that people be able to prove who they are. In our decentralized system of government, state driver’s licenses have evolved to serve this purpose, and making it as hard as possible for terrorists and other bad guys to get these documents is an important piece of any homeland security strategy. After all, two of the 9/11 hijackers were able to get multiple state IDs after they had become illegal aliens, and future enemy operatives are even more likely to be illegal aliens, as legal entry becomes harder for them.

Concerns from some opponents about the development of a centralized national ID card are not to be disregarded, but they are misplaced in this instance. State driver’s licenses already serve as de facto national IDs. They are the only practicable national IDs we can have–setting up a new system would be an administrative nightmare and there would be many opportunities for fraud. Setting minimum federal standards, while leaving the states basically in charge of issuing the licenses/IDs is obviously the best way forward, and represents an appropriate mix of federal and state roles.

Besides, the real-world options before us are: Improve the current dysfunctional, but decentralized ID system, or watch Washington take over the whole thing after the next terrorist attack.

Other provisions of the Real ID Act also garnered opposition, especially the provisions that would make it harder for terrorists to use the asylum system to enter and remain in the country. Sen. Sam Brownback voiced the concerns of conservative Christian groups that these asylum reforms might inadvertently harm people genuinely fleeing religious persecution. After some modifications, these concerns were addressed; the remaining opponents of the bill are mainly those liberals and libertarians who oppose immigration enforcement in general.

Two caveats remain. First, several senators demanded pork-barrel visa programs to procure extra foreign workers for pet industries; unwise as this is, the numbers are modest and not open-ended. The more important worry is the loophole that would allow states to issue special “driving certificates” to illegals, so long as the documents contained a disclaimer that they were not valid for identification. Tennessee and Utah already do this, and opponents of the bill like the New York Times applaud this approach. It could be, then, that the opponents of immigration enforcement will seek to make, from their perspective, lemonade out of lemons and push this tactic nationwide, confident that if enough people had such documents, they would end up being accepted as ID anyway. Supporters of Real ID in Congress think that unlikely. We hope they’re right. But if this loophole causes the two-tier license approach to spread, then Congress will need to revisit the issue.

A final caution: Some will now argue that Congress has completed work on immigration enforcement and it’s time to get on with legalizing illegal aliens and adopting huge new guestworker programs. Even if these were good ideas (which they’re not), there is much work left to do before we can claim to have an immigration-enforcement system worthy of the name.

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