Feds push gently on Real ID Act

Law set to go into effect in April


Jan. 22--Nearly a decade after Congress passed the Real ID Act to thwart terrorists from getting driver's licenses, the law will finally go into effect in April. But 13 states still are not ready.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security repeatedly put off enforcement of the law, as states complained about its costs and civil rights groups objected to it as an invasion of privacy. But in December, while DHS was temporarily headed by counterterrorism expert Rand Beers, the agency unveiled a gradual rollout for enforcing the law.

Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, which supports Real ID, praised the agency for its "deliberate approach." The slow ramp-up will give the agency time to address practical problems and avoid technical or training snafus before the requirements affect the general public, he said.

"Nobody has ever done this before... so enforcing this law is going to be a major challenge," said Zimmer, who helped draft the law's provisions on driver's licenses as a congressional committee staffer.

But Chris Calabrese, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new timetable will do little to convince holdout states to comply with the law.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "It is impossible to imagine DHS keeping the citizens of any of those states off of airplanes...I don't see that most of these states are going to have a whole lot more incentive than they have ever had to do this, which is to say, none."

Alaska, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma and Washington state do not currently meet the law's standards, according to DHS.

Another 15 states do not yet meet the requirements but have asked the federal government for more time to do so. They all have extensions through October and can renew those extensions.

Soon after Real ID became law, 17 states passed laws restricting or banning its implementation within their borders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Liberals and conservatives alike recoiled at the law in its early years. They objected to the law's costs, federal pre-emption of state practices and the potential threat to personal privacy.

But two of those states - Georgia and Utah - now issue Real ID-compliant licenses. Seven more are among those granted extensions to comply with the law.

The controversy over Real ID faded in most state capitols as DHS repeatedly delayed enforcement. Technically, the law does not impose new rules on states. But by requiring Real ID-compliant licenses to board commercial aircraft, the law could put a lot of public pressure on states to issue licenses that meet its standards.

In the final report it issued in July 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended that states improve driver's license security, because four of the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks used state-issued driver's licenses to board the planes they later crashed.

The Real ID Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in May 2005, requires states to verify that an applicant is in the country legally, using federal databases and original documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards. It also imposes security measures for workers who handle driver's license information or who produce the physical documents.

The federal government has delayed enforcement of Real ID four times since it was originally supposed to go into effect in May 2008.

As those deadlines neared, the law's proponents raised the specter of residents in noncompliant states not being able to board flights with their state-issued identification. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, often cited that as a reason to bar unauthorized immigrants from getting driver's licenses there.

The federal government's new open-ended schedule would put off that type of widespread enforcement until the waning days of the Obama administration_at the earliest.

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