Politics & Policy

Doubling Down on Real ID

A corollary of the immigration bill should ensure identity security.

Al Gore may have to release a new documentary to complain about all of the paper being used to print analysis and new versions of the pending immigration legislation under debate in the Senate. This topic certainly deserves a thorough debate. And we’ve seen charges and countercharges about amnesty, low-wage workers, and Americanization. Interestingly, however, one of the most important parts of the bill has received almost no discussion at all.

The negotiators at the heart of the “grand bargain” cleverly included a mandate dictating that, since we really cannot easily differentiate people claiming to be American citizens from those who are not citizens, everyone seeking employment in this country will need to show a secure identification document to prove to employers they are who they claim to be. While the mandate would initially allow for some flexibility on exactly what documents could be utilized, only a passport or driver’s license meeting standards under the REAL ID Act would be allowed by 2013,.

This provision is an important acknowledgement of the value and relevance of the REAL ID Act, enacted by Congress in 2005 in response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations regarding improved identification security in this country. According to commissioner John Lehman in a recent Washington Post oped, “Identity security was one of our most important recommendations because the 19 hijackers had 30 state-issued IDs, at least seven of which were obtained by fraud. Most important, they used the IDs to assimilate into the United States and to board planes on Sept. 11, 2001.”

Under REAL ID, which is about to be implemented under regulations currently in final development at the Department of Homeland Security, states will have to secure their issuance processes, utilize tamper-resistant materials and production methods, and ensure that only legal U.S. residents receive state-identification documents for federal purposes. Despite efforts by the ACLU and other self-described privacy groups to gut the law, Americans strongly support secure identity document standards in the REAL ID: A recent Zogby poll determined that 70 percent of Americans support the introduction of national minimum standards for driver’s licenses.

While everyone agrees that foreign workers and legal immigrants be issued tamper-resistant, biometrically enabled employment documents for verification by potential employers, there are those who don’t want to apply the same standard to U.S. citizens. But most undocumented workers pretend to be American citizens by acquiring fake IDs or creating false identities. If we only focus on building secure-identification standards on those claiming to be foreign workers, there will no doubt be plenty of illegals using easily obtainable, fake driver’s licenses to “prove” citizenship. Requiring REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses avoids this loophole.

“Doubling down” by writing REAL ID into the immigration bill ensures that only legal U.S. citizens and residents can be employed by claiming legitimate status. The bill is our best chance to weed out identity thieves and leverage the immense cost of the REAL ID security improvements. And speaking of cost, the immigration bill will authorize $1.5 billion in grants over five years to help states meet the demands of the law and begin providing their residents the secure IDs they desire and deserve.

Unfortunately, amendments have been proposed to the immigration bill to remove the use of REAL ID employer standards and the grant program. Without this language and this capability in the immigration bill, the country will be forced to move towards a national ID card, probably in the form of a new, tamper-resistant Social Security card. For opponents of a national ID card, REAL ID is the last and best chance to avoid that reality.

While the immigration bill remains in procedural limbo, both the House and Senate are tackling the need to fund REAL ID as part of the appropriations bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security. The committee-passed bill in the House contains $50 million, approximately one-twentieth of the amount the Nationals Governors’ Association has requested for one-time implementation costs. It is likely that there will be attempts on both sides of the Capitol to add real money for REAL ID. For a Congress focused intently on implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations, whether REAL ID receives significant funding will be telling.

As Congress grapples with “real” solutions to our immigration morass, how legislators deal with REAL ID will be a true test of the commitment to finally build a credible immigration system. So why would there be proposals to repeal the REAL ID Act, efforts to strip references to it in the Senate immigration bill, and question marks about Congress’ commitment to partner with states on REAL ID funding? For this Congress to deserve the support of the American people on immigration, it should make the best use of the secure identification-document system being constructed, not make the jobs of fighting terrorism and controlling illegal immigration even more difficult.

— C. Stewart Verdery Jr. is the president of the Monument Policy Group, LLC, and was assistant secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2003-2005.


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