States fall in line with Real ID

All but a handful of states have made preparations to comply with a May 1 deadline for compliance with the federal Real ID law that mandates secure driver's licenses be issued only to legal residents of the United States, according to specialists inside and outside the federal government.

The states' quiet steps to fall in line with the law appear to contradict state officials' blustering claims that they will resist the new requirements.

Meanwhile, states are grappling with the technical issues of setting up systems that will ensure that applicants for driver's licenses are vetted for proof of identity and legal presence in the country. The Homeland Security Department acknowledged early in the process of framing regulations for the law that new connections among state motor vehicle department databases and federal visa records would have to be established to allow the state agencies to verify driver's bona fides.

Complying with the May 1 deadline isn't that hard, experts in the law and regulations contend. The state governments essentially have two choices. First, they can show DHS that their driver's licenses meet the initial requirements of adopting the security and proof-of-legal presence requirements of the law.

Officials familiar with state policies in the field have estimated that at least two states already have met the legal-presence requirement that is a core aspect of the Real ID law.

Second, they can apply for a waiver to extend the date for their compliance with the law for as long as 18 months, which will likely be well into the term of the next administration.

Congress and the Bush administration adopted the Real ID law mainly as a result of findings by 9/11 Commission investigators that the militants who hijacked commercial aircraft in those attacks carried many driver's licenses issued by various state-level motor vehicle departments (DMVs).

Since the passage of the Real ID law, DHS has blinked winsomely on the statute's technical compliance details. For example, the department has exempted elderly residents who were born inside this country before all states issued birth certificates to infants born at home.

Real ID compliance is being phased in to reduce the financial burden on state governments, and those governments have received some grant funds to help pay for the credentials.

DHS now counts only four states as having failed to either obtain waivers or comply with the requirement to launch a legal-presence program. The program itself would not have to be complete by that date, but DMVs would have to announce their intent to comply.

About a third of all state governments have adopted resolutions in opposition to Real ID requirements. But almost all those states have received deadline waivers ' some of them without having actually asked for the temporary exemptions.
Opponents of the law raise the specter of a nationwide database of personal information. Real ID proponents note that the 'pointer system' envisioned as a means of providing communications among state DMVs doesn't shift any state's data to a central registry.

Advocates of Real ID cite several other advantages of the law besides hindering the creation of false credentials for criminals and foreign militants. For example, they cite the laws' contribution to the 'entity resolution' problems that face state prison systems, where convicts frequently seek to change their identities to foil prosecution for crimes committed under other names.

The FBI faces a similar problem in the development of its Next Generation Identification project to improve the accuracy of its biometric databases of individual identities. Bureau officials have cited problems with resolving the identities of persons in the federal and state prison systems as one of the major technical goals of their project. The entity resolution problem also arises in the creation of police information networks such as National Data Exchange system (N-Dex) project the FBI recently rolled out as well as that project's commercial counterparts, such as the widely adopted Coplink system.

The advocates also cite the importance of enforcing legal presence in the country as a prerequisite to any attempt to resolve the status of more than 10 million people who reside here illegally.

The most adamant state that rejects the Real ID law, Oklahoma, has passed a law stating that it will not comply with the federal Real ID requirements. However, specialists in the field including Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, note that Oklahoma has received a waiver that will delay the state's effective compliance date.

States that fail to meet their extended compliance dates could, in theory, expose their citizens to increased likelihood of stricter inspections when entering federal buildings or boarding aircraft.

Some observers contend that once the necessary technical work is done and state DMVs have worked out the kinks of providing secure driver's licenses, resistance to the law may fade and compliance benefits become clearer.

Some Real ID advocates contend that if and when the law helps expose criminals who have evaded punishment for decades by using fake documents, that positive publicity could help break down opposition to the requirements, and the recalcitrant state governments will fall into line.

If the most obdurate states, like Oklahoma, continue to refuse to comply, their driver's licenses could, in effect, become red flags, according to some observers. If Oklahoma becomes a 'sanctuary state' for people who refuse to provide proof of identity or legal presence in the country, police outside the state likely will view the state's driver's licenses warily.

State lawmakers' statements that the Real ID law imposes a new requirement that private citizens properly identify themselves to the police contradict decades of U.S. Supreme Court decisions to the contrary, according to legal specialists.

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