Licensing Trouble

Under a new federal law, state DMVs will be forced into the role of immigration police.
July 2005
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Not so very long ago, a driver's license was just a driver's license-- an innocuous little card meant to do one thing and one thing alone: indicate that the bearer was of legal driving age and capable of operating a motor vehicle safely.

Since then, as we all know, it has become a whole lot more. A driver's license is now the most indispensable component of the average adult's wallet, more important than a credit card, a Social Security card, or even cash. Without that picture I.D., most of us would be, almost literally, nobody; and for those of us who travel by air, nowhere.

Because just about all of us have one of these cards, and must periodically head to a nearby DMV office to renew it, creative thinkers have been motivated over the years to come up with many ideas for how to use licenses in ways that were never originally envisioned. Such uses have ranged from tracking down dads behind in their child support to registering kids for the draft.

Some in the state transportation field have embraced this evolution; others have viewed it as a bit onerous. But the whole issue of the driver's license and its role in our world changed dramatically on September 11, 2001, when terrorists used state-issued I.D.s to board airplanes that they turned into suicide bombs. The incident was particularly painful for Virginia, which had worked at making it less cumbersome to obtain licenses and had in fact issued them to two of the hijackers.

In the ensuing four years, there has been a great deal of discussion but virtually no action on the idea of coming up with some sort of secure identification in which America can have confidence. Proposals to establish a national identification card have brought libertarian criticism ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union on the left to radical militia members on the right. Congress wants no part of that fight under any circumstances.

And so our elected leaders in Washington have come up with a different idea: Dump the whole problem on the states. Under the so- called "real I.D." law, which cleared Congress in May and goes into effect in three years, state DMVs will be more than just gatekeepers and enforcers for an official roster of federal laws and requirements. Whether they like it or not, they will be the designated national identity cops.

Under real I.D., states will have to develop extensive policies and systems for ensuring that people who come in for licenses are who they say they are. As part of that new system, DMV personnel will turn into de facto immigration police. Instead of focusing on giving immigrants the chance to prove they're competent to operate a vehicle, DMVs will, in essence, be conducting sting operations for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and other federal agencies.

The investment in personnel and technology that such a new state role will require can only be guessed at, but it will be huge, and for some governments, it could be financially ruinous. Just at the moment that many DMVs have begun to turn their reputation for chronic incompetence around, the added burden of real I.D. has a good chance of making life for ordinary DMV customers just as nerve-wracking as it was in the bad old days. And that's assuming it's all handled with honesty and integrity. Occasional stories still come out about DMV staff in a few places selling licenses to people who have demonstrated neither their driving ability nor their identity. Unless that problem is taken care of, real I.D. will make the market for those documents much more lucrative.

Such cavils aside, Congress--which routinely expresses its intention to protect the health, welfare and safety of the American public--has taken an indefensible position in dodging this issue. If the federal government wants a national identification card, and if it wants to get tough on immigration, then Congress should take responsibility for the job. DMVs have got enough to do without being asked to step in for elected officials in Washington who don't have sufficient backbone to tackle the tough issues for themselves.