Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Unreal ID

Sara Robinson

People waiting last week at a Montreal passport office for service. (photo CP / Peter McCabe)

Up here in the great frozen north, the news headlines for the past few days have dominated by stories of people queueing up at Canadian government offices at six in the morning to apply for passports. The reason for this sudden rush? On January 23, a new Homeland Security rule will require all Canadians boarding flights going through US airspace to show a passport. (They'll also be required at land border crossings starting later this year.) Which means that Canadians who've long been used to coming and going throughout North America on the strength of a birth certificate alone are suddenly going to be grounded if they don't get that little blue book. This has created (polite, Canadian-style) mass panic at passport offices from Victoria to Halifax, and is threatening to stall the migration of quite a few of the snowbirds who would otherwise be heading off to Florida or Arizona this time of year.

The American media, on the other hand, have been almost completely silent about the draconian new ID requirements that have come creeping upon US citizens over the past five years -- and especially since the passage of the 2005 Real ID Act. This morning, Stateline.org -- a government research group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts -- released a new report that summarizes the ways in which dozens of states have gone completely over the top in their ID requirements for drivers licenses, voting, and other services.
When Colorado state Sen. Andy McElhany (R) championed adoption of the strictest identification requirements in the country, his aim was to keep illegal immigrants off state welfare rolls. He didn’t anticipate making it harder for his 15-year-old daughter to get a learner’s permit.

But that’s what happened when his wife and daughter showed up at the Division of Motor Vehicles office in Colorado Springs in September. They brought the teen’s passport, only to discover DMV had changed the rules and a passport was no longer a sufficient form of identification. “There's no reason to believe a 15-year-old girl is going to be running around with a fake passport just to get a driver's permit," a chagrined McElhany said.

Americans by the tens of millions will have to dig out documents such as Social Security cards and birth certificates, or go to the expense of getting new ones, to renew their driver’s licenses. Fears of terrorism and the uproar over illegal immigration are behind the new rules. The Real ID Act is a response to the fact that four of the 19 foreign hijackers on Sept. 11 had obtained valid U.S. driver’s licenses.
Did you know about this? Did any paper in America report on this while it was happening? But here we are -- in Colorado, at least, a U.S. passport is no longer considered the ID gold standard, and state legislatures across the rest of the country are, even now, out there making up fun new ID rules of their own. Colorado's overenthusiastic implementation of the Real ID Act may just be a preview of coming distractions for the rest of the country.
Most of the 245 million driver’s license holders in the United States aren’t aware yet that the Real ID Act’s document dragnet for terrorists, illegal aliens and imposters is about to entangle them, too. But state officials are aware and are set to bang on the doors of the new Congress demanding more time and money to comply.

States are throwing up their hands at the requirement that each driver come in person to motor vehicle offices to renew driver’s licenses starting in May 2008. Everyone will have to bring a set of documents proving his identity and residency, although the exact documents haven't been spelled out yet. The papers will have to be verified by government databases that do not yet exist. States also have to create new IDs with anti-counterfeiting security features.

By curbing renewals by mail and online, Real ID will force DMVs to handle 686 million customer transactions face-to-face over five years, instead of the 295 million they would handle anyway, a study by the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators concluded. DMV staffs would have to be doubled at a cost of more than $11 billion to take on the extra duties, state officials estimate.

…Colorado ran into legal trouble within months of enacting the nation's toughest ID standards. New rules requiring proof of both identity and legal U.S. residency left some unable to get a driver’s license or state ID card. Without ID, they also were left without access to everything from welfare to winter heating assistance to fishing licenses.

According to the Pew report, the new federal ID standards are also wreaking havoc at social service agencies, as people who apply for public assistance are going for weeks without heat and food -- or losing their homes entirely -- while they order newly-required birth certificates and wait for them to arrive in the mail.
Caseworkers are overwhelmed with families needing social services that need help tracking down certified birth certificates. The Denver Department of Human Services, which helps poor people order and pay for duplicates of their birth certificates, had about twice as many folks seeking help a month after the law took effect and expects a doubling again by 2007, according to spokeswoman Sue Cobb.
Small wonder that this has already ended up in the Colorado state courts, where a judge froze the new rules last month; and that legislators are taking a second look at fine-tuning the law:
One of the plaintiffs, 70-year-old Leon Hill, became homeless after he was robbed of his identification and money shortly after moving to Denver in 2006. He was denied a new ID when he could produce only his original California birth certificate and a photocopy his driving record. Diana Galliano, 42, was denied a driver’s license when she presented her valid New York driver’s license and U.S. passport. Michael Sullivan, 49, had a birth certificate and photocopies of his stolen New Mexico driver’s license and stolen Social Security card.

“In Colorado they’ve made it so hard to get an ID, it’s truly a Catch-22 where citizens can’t get an identity card unless they’ve already got one,” said Denver attorney Tim MacDonald, whose law firm is working pro bono on the case with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
While Canadians acqire passports, Americans will be making permanent space in their wallets for certified birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports, and copies of their latest bank statements and utility bills Under Real ID, it appears, you'll soon have to produce some unknown combination of these for almost any interaction you have with the government.

The burden will fall hardest on the 46 million poor, elderly, and disabled who rely on state-run Medicare programs, who will also have to present far more documentation in order to receive services. While the Congressional Budget office estimates that weeding out illegal immigrants could save $735 million over the next decade -- to put that in perspective, that's less than we're spending in Iraq on any given day -- it's creating untold hardships that could have other repercussions down the road:
The new law creates problems for Americans without birth certificates or those who can’t find them easily. Even parents with a child's birth certificate in hand – including for babies born in U.S. hospitals, making them automatic citizens – must provide separate documentation proving legal state residency, such as school or health records. Advocates and state Medicaid administrators worry the nuisance and cost of securing the right documents could discourage parents from getting their child vaccinated or treated.

The elderly and mentally ill in nursing homes or state institutions are especially liable to slip through the cracks, advocates warn. It's common for senior citizens to let driver's licenses lapse or for Alzheimer's patients to lose track of personal identification, noted Elizabeth Priaulx of the National Disability Rights Network.

And, of course, all this provides a fine new infrastructure for those looking to cut "undesirables" out of the voting pool. Twenty-six states, including Indiana, Georgia, Missouri, and Arizona, have passed laws requiring some form of ID (the number and type of documents are subject to the weather and moon phase, of course) in order to vote. In South Carolina last November, the Republican governor was turned away from the polls when he couldn’t produce the right kind of ID. The Georgia courts recognized that mandating $20 ID cards is a form of poll tax, and struck the requirement down; the Missouri courts ruled that the new ID regulations unduly infringed on people's voting rights. But the other states' bills have passed judicial muster so far; and Arizona's was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It's only a matter of time before the crazy-quilt patchwork of various state ID requirements prompted by the Real ID act results in exasperated bureaucrats at all levels openly demanding a universal national ID card, which we'll need to present to drive, vote, apply for any kind of license, of get any kind of services. And that, quite likely, is exactly what the proponents of this bill had in mind when they wrote it: to force us into a Kafkaesque hell requiring us to produce a zillion different kinds of documentation; and then "save" us by offering us the blessed relief of an otherwise unacceptable solution.

The suspicious Nazi officer demanding to see your papers has been an American caricature for 70 years. We could laugh at him because the idea that an open society in America would ever empower a petty fascist like that seemed so implausible. It turns out, though, that it only took five years of Bush-era fearmongering to bring us to the point where Americans would not only accept, but embrace, government agents demanding to see our papers.

Our open society is vanishing behind a wall of data, as we fill our increasingly empty wallets with growing piles of official paper documenting our existence -- all in the name of proving that we are neither terrorists nor illegals. In effect, it's putting the burden on us to prove our right to claim the benefits of being an American citizen -- instead of requiring the government to bear the burden of proof when it seeks to deny them. And that, at its core, is why this is wrong.

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