Congress May Require Closer Scrutiny to Get a Driver's License
By MATTHEW L. WALD
and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: May 3, 2005
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WASHINGTON, May 2 - Congress is moving quickly toward setting strict rules
on how states issue driver's licenses, requiring them to verify whether each
applicant for a new license or a renewal is in this country legally.
A House and Senate conference now taking place has included the
requirements, which apply to all 50 states and other jurisdictions that
issue licenses, in a supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq, aides
involved in the process said on Monday. The draft legislation will be
completed in the next few days and is all but certain to pass.
State officials complain that the new requirements will add a costly,
complicated burden to the issuance of driver's licenses, which has been
their responsibility for almost a century. Civil rights organizations and
privacy advocates say that they are concerned that a standardized driver's
license would amount to a national identification card and that a central
database would be vulnerable to identify theft.
The proposed regulations, intended to deter terrorist attacks, would replace
a provision of the intelligence bill passed in December that called on state
and federal agencies to develop new rules for licenses. That law did not
specifically require states to check the citizenship or immigration status
Eleven states now grant driver's licenses to noncitizens who do not have
visas. There is no reliable estimate of how many licenses have been issued
to noncitizens, whether in the country legally or illegally.
Some of the ideas in the new measure were considered and dropped in
December. But conservative members of the House, led by Representative F.
James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, threatened to block
passage of the intelligence bill, and won an agreement that they could try
again this year. They got a pledge from the leadership to include the
driver's license measures in a must-pass bill this year.
Under the rules being considered, before granting a driver's license, a
state would have to require proof of citizenship or legal presence, proof of
an address and proof of a Social Security number. It would need to check the
legal status of noncitizens against a national immigration database, to save
copies of any documents shown and to store a digital image of the face of
The licenses issued must include the driver's address and a digital
photograph, and would incorporate new authentication features designed to
prevent counterfeits. The new law would also require that the licenses of
legal temporary residents expire when their visas do. The rules would also
apply to renewals, an aide involved in the conference said.
Supporters of the law say it addresses important security problems and note
that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers used driver's licenses as identification
when checking in for their flights, and that a few had expired visas.
Supporters also say the measure will help control illegal immigration.
Caroline Espinosa, a spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, a group that lobbies for
tighter borders and tougher immigration laws, said, "This is really targeted
toward national security, but a side effect would be discouraging illegal
immigrants from coming into the United States and making it more difficult
for them to open a bank account, buy a house, rent a car or buy a car."
State officials and some senators say the new provision, known as the Real
ID measure, imposes verification procedures - like the authentication of
birth certificates - that would be difficult for even the federal government
A bipartisan group of senators - the Republicans John E. Sununu of New
Hampshire and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and the Democrats Joseph I.
Lieberman of Connecticut and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois - complained
about the proposal in a recent letter to the Senate majority leader, Bill
"By repealing a provision enacting a central recommendation of the 9/11
commission, in favor of unworkably rigid federal mandates," the letter said,
"it would jeopardize an initiative that can make the nation safer from
Cheye Calvo, the director of the transportation committee at the National
Council of State Legislatures, predicted that unintended conflicts would
emerge from the measure, which he noted would become law without any
hearings. Referring to state motor vehicle departments, Mr. Calvo asked, "Is
the goal here to shut down D.M.V.'s?"
Many state licensing officials, however, have long seen a need for tighter
standards and better linking of databases because many drivers whose
licenses are revoked in one state quickly get a license in another.
In mid-April, experts representing governors, state legislatures, motor
vehicle departments, police departments, the federal Departments of
Transportation and Homeland Security, the AAA and the American Civil
Liberties Union, along with information technology experts, held three days
of meetings here to begin planning how to carry out the provisions in the
intelligence reform law.
"In December, they recognized the complexity of this process and they set up
a system to discuss it back and forth," said State Senator Michael Balboni
of New York, who was appointed by the National Council of State Legislatures
to represent the states in negotiations in Washington on how to put the bill
into effect. "Now, suddenly, less than five months later, they come back and
say, forget all that, we're going to take this unilateral approach."
Mr. Balboni's group said the new rules would cost the states $500 million to
Privacy advocates have raised criticisms. Timothy D. Sparapani, the chief
lobbyist on privacy issues for the A.C.L.U., said the standardized license
would amount to a national identification card. And with the data accessible
in a single database, he said, "this is a recipe for identity-theft
The new rules have been propelled by an unlikely combination of factors.
House conservatives have said they will not consider an expanded temporary
worker program, a goal of President Bush and business groups, until what
they call border security measures are adopted. Strategists working with the
White House say they have accepted the need to accommodate the conservatives
to win support for a package of changes in immigration law.
The 11 states that now issue licenses to people who cannot document their
immigration status are Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico,
North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
In July, Tennessee began issuing driver's licenses marked: "For driving
purposes only. Not valid for identification." The license, given to people
who cannot supply proof that they are in the state legally, is printed
vertically, to distinguish it from most other driver's licenses, which are
Melissa McDonald, a spokeswoman for the state motor vehicle department, said
Tennessee took the action because Gov. Phil Bredesen "felt like we needed to
address the issue of homeland security, while still conducting written and
road tests for people who want to drive, and providing them with a document
that insurance companies would accept before writing insurance, which car
owners are required to have."
Tennessee has issued about 22,000 such cards since July, Ms. McDonald said.
The written exam is given in Spanish, French and Korean. Utah began issuing
a similar card on March 8. Under Utah law, the card can be accepted as
identification by private entities but not government agencies.