Congress Sets New Driver's License Rules
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
Tired of standing in line every time you visit the state Department of Motor Vehicles?
Well, drivers should get set for even longer queues and additional hassles the next time their licenses come up for renewal, according to opponents of new federal standards for driver's licenses adopted by Congress May 10.
"The line at the DMV is not just going to be out the door, it's going to be down the block and around the corner every day," predicted Tim Sparapani, legal council for the American Civil Liberties Union , which opposes the standards. "The headaches are going to be staggering."
Supporters of the new standards say any added time spent applying for or renewing licenses is a small price to pay for the increased security that comes with stronger identity verification procedures.
The new standards usurp states' traditional role in setting criteria for driver's licenses and aim to outlaw licenses for illegal immigrants. For the first time, a uniform nationwide policy will require at least four forms of identification to obtain a driver's license, and states will develop and link databases containing drivers' identities. States must comply in three years or their driver's licenses no longer will be accepted as valid ID by federal agencies,
"Three thousand people died on 9-11, and I really think that if people have to wait an extra 20 minutes in line at the DMV to make sure it doesn't happen again, then that's not the end of the world," said Colleen Gilbert, executive director of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, a nonprofit organization formed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Since the attacks, in which four of the 19 hijackers used valid state-issued driver's licenses to board the airplanes they later crashed, driver's licenses have been viewed as a homeland-security tool and not just a way to regulate the nation's roadways. Nearly every state has since made some effort to secure its licenses.
The new rules, promoted by U.S. House Judiciary Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), preempt plans for more flexible driver's license standards passed by Congress late last year as part of a landmark overhaul of intelligence agencies.
The stricter driver's license standards, which some say amount to a national ID card, are the linchpin of a set of provisions advocated by Sensenbrenner and other conservative House Republicans to curb illegal immigration.
The measure could nullify policy in 10 states where illegal immigrants now are able to obtain driver's licenses; all license applicants will have to prove they are lawfully present in the United States. Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin currently do not require applicants to show they are lawfully present in the United States, in effect granting licenses to illegal immigrants.
The bill also specifies that temporary workers and other foreigners with pending legal immigration claims would be eligible only for temporary driver's licenses or identification cards, similar to a driver's certificate for guest workers unveiled in Tennessee last year. It requires states that choose to issue the temporary licenses to use a U.S. Department of Homeland Security database to verify that an applicant is legally present in the country.
The driver's license and immigration provisions were attached to an $82 billion supplemental spending bill mainly to fund military operations in Iraq. President Bush is expected to sign the bill by the end of the week.
Although the intelligence overhaul law Congress passed last year authorized the first-ever federal standards for state-issued driver's licenses, it was much more palatable to states because new rules for issuing driver's licenses were to be written by a committee that included state officials.
Sensenbrenner's provisions suspend the rule-making committee, which held its first meeting in April. State officials, who held eight of the 16 seats on the committee, are upset they no longer have input on devising the standards.
"The notion that they would turn around and close down a collaborative process and substitute a set of prescriptive, rigid requirements is very unfortunate," said Cheye Calvo, who handles federal-state issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures . "This bill will take away states' seat at the table."
The measure, which has been dubbed the "Real ID Act," requires that license applicants present and states verify four documents before issuing a license:
- a form of photo identification
- a document showing date of birth
- proof of a social security number or eligibility for a social security number
- a document with name and principle address.
All states' licenses also must include an individual's name, address, date of birth, gender, signature, driver's license number and digital photograph as well as features designed to prevent counterfeiting.
NCSL estimated that states would have to spend $500 million to $700 million over the next five years to comply with the federal mandates and $50 million to $70 million in annual costs after that. However, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that states would spend only $20 million more over five years to comply with the Real ID Act than with the guidelines in the intelligence overhaul legislation.
States for the first time also would be required to develop and maintain driver's license databases that link to other states, prompting protests from privacy advocates that the system could make it easier for criminals to access license data.
"Any sophisticated identity thief, organized crime member or terrorist will be able to get this information with ease," said Sparapani of the ACLU.
But backers say a central database will shore up national security by preventing a person from obtaining licenses from multiple states.
"A drunk driver who has had his license suspended in Montana won't be able to go to Wyoming anymore to get a driver's license and then go back to Montana and use it," said Gilbert with the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License.