Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

New ID Could Cost Immigrants Their Licenses

As the federal government presses for the issuance of a new identity card, civil libertarians and advocates for immigrants say the plan will be a "nightmare" for New York State and are calling on Governor Eliot Spitzer to reject it.

The REAL ID Act, passed in 2005, requires states to comply with certain standards when they issue driver's licenses and identification cards if the licenses are to serve as accepted federal identification. States can issue licenses without meeting those guidelines, but the license then will not serve as proper identification for entering a federal facility or boarding a federally regulated commercial plane.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says the REAL IDs are intended to "prevent terrorism" and "reduce fraud." "Raising the security standards on driver's licenses establishes another layer of protection to prevent terrorists from obtaining and using fake documents to plan or carry out an attack," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a March press release.

But the REAL ID Act has attracted a growing list of skeptics – both in the state and nationwide. Some oppose the REAL ID because it could force thousands of undocumented immigrants to lose the right to drive. Others fear the card could lay the foundation for the country's first "national ID card" and infringe on privacy. Additionally, worries abound about how New York would implement the high-tech and costly program, as well as the burden it would put on the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.


With a REAL ID, applicants must have all source documents concerning their identity, immigration status, date of birth and Social Security number verified with the original issuing agency. So, for example, the local health department might have to vouch for a person's birth certificate.

Applicants who pass muster would then receive a card that could be read by a machine, such as a scanner. Their personal information would be stored in a database that would allow information to be shared with other state. And their new card would enable them to enter federal offices and nuclear power plants, among other facilities.

But it might not stop there, according to Udi Ofer, legislative counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Some members of Congress are reportedly trying to require a REAL ID for an increasing number of activities, including applying for a new job or getting a federal housing subsidy.

At the same time, though, the REAL ID is encountering widespread resistance. States are not required to implement the REAL ID Act and can decide if and how to apply it. Lawmakers in Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Montana, and Washington already have passed legislation opposing the act, and nearly two dozen other states have similar legislation pending. Critics of the REAL ID in New York would like to see the state follow suit. In pressing their case they raise a number of objections to the REAL ID.


Civil libertarians fear that the databases required by the act will give state and government officials an eagle-eye view of individuals' movements and increased access to their personal information. Some worry it could be a step toward establishing a national identity card.

Homeland security department officials dismiss such concerns. In its proposed regulations, department officials wrote, "Neither the REAL ID Act nor these proposed regulations gives the federal government any greater access to information than it had before."

In response to concerns about the database, the department wrote that the act does not create a centralized database on all drivers "because it leaves the decision of how to conduct the exchanges in the hands of the states. Moreover, no federal agency will operate the data exchanges affecting non-commercial driver's licensing."

Ofer called the department's position "absurd." He said, "Under the REAL ID Act, every database maintained in every state across the country will be linked to one another. So the government in New York will be able to access information about a citizen living Wisconsin and look at that person's birth certificate, driving records and other identifiable information. And all of these databases will be linked to a federal database."

Civil libertarians are also warning that the card's required "machine-readable technology" could give the government and others the ability to track individuals. And while the homeland security does not stipulate the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, which can be used to scrutinize consumers' buying habits, it does say, "states may independently choose to implement an RFID."

The department did not respond to requests for an interview.

Effects on Immigrants

The REAL ID Act could have a major impact on immigrants in New York. Amy Sugimori, director of La Fuente, immigrant advocacy group, does not think that that is an accident. She points out the measure was sponsored by U.S. Representative James Sennsenbrenner of Wisconsin who once sponsored a bill that would have provided additional criminal penalties for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. As for the REAL ID law, she said, "What was clear was that it was intended to be very much a punitive measure against immigrants."

Opponents of the REAL ID Act fear that, if New York implements it, many undocumented immigrants could lose their driver's licenses. One of the documents an applicant must submit is proof of immigration status and undocumented immigrants, of course, do not have that.

Manuel, who asked only to be identified by his first name, said that linking the REAL IDs to driving privileges could be devastating for immigrant communities. Manuel, originally from Ecuador, lives in Queens and is a member of the New York Civic Participation Project. "Everyone needs a driver's license to get to work, to take their children to school, or to drive to the hospital in an emergency situation," he said. "But [REAL ID] means that no one can have a driver's license if you're not a legal immigrant.

Sugimori said the two-tiered system where only some people have access to driver's licenses is bad public policy. "A system that drives people underground and divides people based on status is worrisome, because it isn't good for community relations," she said.

Restricting driver's licenses could have a major impact on the state's economy as well. For example, a high percentage of workers in the state's key agricultural industry are immigrants who need driver's licenses to get to their jobs in rural areas.

In the past, Spitzer has supported driver's licenses for immigrants. "The facts show that restricting immigrants' access to driver's licenses does nothing to improve security. All it does is drive immigrants into the shadows, creating a class of people with no public records," a Spitzer spokesperson said in 2006.

Some advocates for immigrants also fear that the REAL ID law unnecessarily stigmatizes them. In April, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows urged Spitzer to reject a law that "equates immigrants with terrorists." In a statement, the organization said, "We are deeply troubled that 9/11 is again being used as a means to justify legislation which unfairly targets immigrants and jeopardizes the privacy of United States citizens."

Much of the work of determining the authenticity of individuals' documents and trying to decipher immigration status will fall on people who staff the state's Department of Motor Vehicles office. This concerns Sugimori. "What kind of arbitrary decisions are going to be made based on appearance?" she said.

"It's not the role of a state motor vehicle agency to become immigration enforcement agencies," said Ofer. "It's bad public policy to drive people into the shadows."

Cost and Efficiency

If the REAL ID was implemented in New York, residents wanting a license would be required to go in person to motor vehicle offices and provide original identification documents. The Department of Motor Vehicles agent would then have to verify the identification documents with the agency that first issued them.

"There's no question that because of the new demands on DMV staff, New Yorkers will confront much slower service, longer lines and a huge number of technical glitches," Ofer said.

He predicted that some New Yorkers could lose driving privileges until they can prove their identity. "People move around, birth certificates may have been lost in fires, people may have been born at a time when birth certificates were not widely available," he said.

For its part, the state Department of Motor Vehicles has estimated that it will cost the state $84 million a year to issue the REAL IDs. The department also estimated that it could take state residents six times as long to renew their licenses under a REAL ID program than it now takes.

"The proposed regulations raise issues as to efficacy, privacy, cost, and even the federal government's own faith in the system as an anti-terrorist tool," state motor vehicles commissioner David Swarts said in a statement.

The REAL ID program is expected to be funded partly from the by the Homeland Security Grant Program, which provides money to states. But people wanting a license would have to pick up part of the tab as well. "I think the concept, though, was that this—like all driver's licenses—is largely a fee-based system, and that, ultimately, the cost of building REAL ID should be amortized over the driver's license fee," Chertoff said in congressional testimony.


While an array of organizations in New York continue to lobby the governor to resist the act, the state's intentions remain unclear. In the letter to the homeland security, Commissioner Swarts said the DMV current intends to offer New Yorkers the option of obtaining REAL ID. However, he has also said, "New York State will continue to evaluate its position as more information becomes available." The department would not comment on the REAL ID act for this article, and Spitzer's office did not return an interview request by press time.

Theoretically the state could opt to issue two types of licenses – a REAL ID license and the old-fashioned one. But Ofer said this would not be a good solution. If New York did that, he said, "a conventional driver's license will become a scarlet letter, telling the world that the bearer of the driver's license may be undocumented." That, he continued, "would lead to widespread discrimination against New York's immigrant communties, as well as against anyone who may be perceived to be a foreigner."

Instead advocates just want to do away with the REAL ID entirely. "If you really want to focus on what's good for a community, or what's good government," said La Fuente's Sugimori, this is not the right system."


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