Social Security

ID Card Trick

Can we count on the DMV to foil terrorists?

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Ideally, the debate about national ID cards should have happened before Congress approved them. But better late than never.

The Real ID Act—which was slipped into a bill appropriating money for U.S. troops in Iraq, thereby assuring its passage with few questions asked—requires states to issue machine-readable, biometrically encoded ID cards (typically driver's licenses) meeting federal standards that specify who gets them, what information they contain, and what documents must be presented to qualify for them. Only such IDs will be accepted for purposes such as traveling by plane or train, opening a bank account, starting a new job, using government services, and collecting Social Security benefits.

The act's critics complain that it violates principles of federalism; creates a nationwide database that will facilitate identity theft and tracking of innocent people by public- and private-sector snoops; makes the roads more dangerous by denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants; endangers people who for security reasons do not want their home addresses (as opposed to P.O. box numbers) on their driver's licenses; and turns the U.S. into the sort of country where the authorities routinely demand your citizenship papers.

The law's supporters, who insist it does not really create a national ID because the cards will still carry the names of individual states, say it will protect us from terrorists. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that terrorists will be unable to forge the ID cards and are not motivated enough to become legal U.S. residents, thereby obtaining the cards fair and square. The system still depends on the ability of state DMV employees to verify legal residency, addresses, birth dates, and Social Security numbers.

Tennessee, which issues special driver's licenses to people who can't prove they're legal residents, is already having trouble with this sort of thing. "We're just doing the best we can with the documents," a state official told The New York Times in early May. "If [the Real ID Act] passes, we're going to have to look at sending all our employees to classes that teach all the different documents."

Given my recent experience with the U.S. State Department, which ought to know a thing or two about distinguishing between citizens and noncitizens, I am not optimistic about the ability of state bureaucrats with less training and experience to solve this paperwork puzzle.

In March, with an eye toward a trip to Israel in late June, my wife and I filled out a passport application for our daughter Mei, whom we adopted in China last summer. In late April, we received a letter from C. Pamela Holliday, regional director at the Washington, D.C., passport office, asking for Mei's certificate of citizenship.

Holliday said that if we did not have the certificate of citizenship—which we didn't, since we had sent it to the passport office—we could send a translation of the Chinese adoption decree, another document we had already submitted. After a couple weeks of calling the State Department's passport help line, staffed by occasionally sympathetic but generally clueless people who kept assuring me that I would hear from the D.C. passport office within 48 hours, I visited the post office where we had submitted the passport application, hoping they had found Mei's certificate of citizenship lying on the floor there.

The passport agent at the post office called the passport office in D.C. and was informed that what they really needed was our "second adoption decree." When I told her we only have one, she suggested I go to the D.C. office.

After a 90-minute wait, a "supervisor" at the D.C. office (not the mysterious C. Pamela Holliday) said that "upon review" it turned out Mei's file was complete and she could get a passport after all. So why did they send the letter? He didn't know. Why did they specifically ask for Mei's certificate of citizenship, leading us to believe they had lost this vitally important document, when they had it all the time? He didn't know. He did not admit there had been an error, let alone apologize.

Multiply the opportunities for such screwups by a few hundred million, and you'll get a sense of the bureaucratic hassles that will accompany implementation of the Real ID Act. Given the government's inability to reliably distinguish those who should get IDs from those who shouldn't, how confident can we be that it will be worth the trouble?