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Unnecessary and Intrusive: REAL ID is a real threat to Colorado

Opinion Editorial
October 20, 2006

By  Mike Krause

If the Colorado Legislature does nothing but implement the REAL ID Act, as the federal government demands, then after May, 2008, all Colorado driver’s license holders will have to be “re-enrolled” under as of yet unknown regulations decided by the federal Department of Homeland Security. In other words, the state driver’s license will become a de-facto national ID and the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles will be little more than a branch office of Homeland Security. Moreover, Colorado lawmakers (and thus Coloradoans) will have little or no say as to how driver’s licenses are issued, what information will be attached to the license or who will have access to that information.

Rather than making the case for a federal takeover of state driver’s license issuance, Republicans cynically attached REAL ID to an un-related emergency spending bill for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for Tsunami relief, thus ensuring both passage and the President’s signature in 2005.

REAL ID was marketed as a tool against terrorist travel and illegal immigration, but with even the slightest scrutiny, these arguments fall apart.

Shortly after passage of the act, a Rocky Mountain News editorial quoted a spokesman for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, inadvertently making the case against REAL ID: “Eighteen of the 19 (Sept. 11) hijackers could’ve used their passports, but chose instead to use state-issued ID and driver’s licenses and it allowed them to get on the planes without detection.” In other words, terrorists who don’t have U.S. driver’s licenses can simply board a plane with a passport. As the News correctly asked, “So how exactly would this misguided law have stopped them?” The short answer is: it wouldn’t have.

As for illegal immigration, during the 2006 special session, the Colorado General Assembly passed a state law denying certain state services to undocumented immigrants. In the first month after the law went into effect, the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles caught over a thousand illegal immigrants trying to pass fake documents to obtain a driver’s license.

In other words, a state law intended to affect only those already violating the law has accomplished most of what REAL ID claims to do…without a massive federal mandate making every Colorado license holder and applicant into a suspected terrorist or illegal alien.

Yet even this narrowly defined state law has managed to snare the law-abiding. As the Rocky Mountain News describes it, the daughter of Colorado State Senator Andy McElhany was denied her learners permit when the DMV refused to accept her U.S. passport as proof of citizenship. The good news is that such blundering can be easily addressed by Colorado lawmakers. The bad news is that in a few more years, the same people who are in charge of airport security and no-fly lists will be in charge of the DMV.

A recent report jointly released by the National Governor’s Association, National Conference of State Legislators and American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimates that implementation of REAL ID will cost states over $11 billion dollars. According to the National Governors Association, “The days of going to the DMV and getting your license on the same day are probably over, you will have to take all your documents as if you are applying for the first time.” And you will get the pleasure of “applying for the first time” every five years.

But more than just expensive and intrusive, the act is also a fairly stunning case of federal coercion against the states.

Since Congress cannot legislate that states implement federal regulatory programs, REAL ID instead will deny anyone who does not carry a REAL ID compliant license after 2008 the ability to board a plane, open a bank account, or any other service or activity the federal government claims jurisdiction over.

As Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Washington D.C.-based Cato Institute notes, “If Congress wants every American to carry a national ID, Congress should vote for it openly, pay for it directly, and answer to voters itself. It should not slough its national ID policies onto the states.”

The Colorado Legislature could help force Congress to do its own dirty work by refusing to implement REAL ID. While a U.S. passport would be acceptable for “federal” purposes, it would be interesting to hear Colorado’s congressional delegation explain to constituents who don’t hold a passport why it is they can no longer board a plane or open a bank account simply because they are not carrying the proper papers.