What’s So Scary About a National ID


An emergency funding measure earmarked for our fighting men and women overseas seems an odd place for a sweeping change to U.S. privacy policy. But that’s just where House conservatives have tucked their proposal to impose federal requirements on state driver’s licenses—a proposal dubbed the Real ID Act.

Civil libertarians hate the idea, because in the ACLU’s phrase, it “takes us one step closer to a national ID.” What’s rarely stated is why a national ID would be such a bad thing.

Discussion about whether the U.S. needs some kind of federal identification card has been around for years. Several countries already have national ID cards; according to Privacy International, this list includes Germany, France, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain. 9-11 revived the push, and national ID proponents might secure their first victory next week when the Senate votes on the conference committee version of the $82 billion supplemental funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan that the House OK’d yesterday.

One section of the bill prohibits the federal government from accepting state driver’s licenses or other ID cards that don’t meet certain “minimum document requirements.” These include a digital photo, machine-readable technology, and “physical security features designed to prevent tampering, counterfeiting or duplication.” States will also be required to demand certain documents from applications, including “evidence of lawful status” in the United States. And states will be required to retain paper copies of those documents for seven years, or digital copies for 10 years.

A coalition of groups opposes the Real ID Act, including the National Council of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. They argue that the feds can’t tell them how to run their driver’s license bureaus, that the technology required is not yet available, and that driver’s licenses are supposed to be for keeping driving safe—not securing America’s borders.

But underlying all those concerns is the worry that the Real ID is a backdoor to a national identification card and what the ACLU calls a “show us your papers” society.

Maybe we’re already there: I mean, the federal government already knows my social security number, the names of my wife and kid, how much money I make, where I work, where I bank, and all other sorts of neat stuff. So it’s not obvious that it’d be a big deal for them to put a name and face together. What’s the big deal?

“The simple answer is that it gives the government greater ability to control the actions of private individuals,” says Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg. “It has generally been the view in this country that one of the core aspects of personal freedom is to be free of government control.”

“Identification is a form of coercion,” Rotenberg continued. “It’s a way someone says you can’t do what you want to do unless you prove who you are.”

Besides their objections to the National ID in principle, civil libertarians are irked that conservatives are trying to introduce such a fundamental change bit-by-bit through laws like Real ID.

There are other reasons to dislike the Real ID act. It explicitly places the burden of proof on people applying for asylum status. “There is no presumption of credibility,” the bill reads. The immigration official deciding a case can ask for evidence, and if a person can’t get evidence because it lies outside the U.S., “the inability to obtain corroborating evidence does not excuse the applicant from meeting the applicant’s burden of proof.” And the bill limits judicial review of immigration decisions.

Real ID sponsor James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, said in a statement that, “This legislation will tighten our asylum system, which has been abused by terrorists.”

But the National Immigration Law Center points out that “terrorists are already ineligible for asylum.” The American Immigration Law Foundation notes:

there were indications in the early 1990s that terrorists were trying to use the asylum system to gain entry to the United States. When the U.S. Government became aware of this and started detaining asylum applicants who were suspected terrorists, the terrorists switched their tactics and began using tourist and student visas. More recently, they have been recruiting American citizens, who cannot be excluded from the United States no matter how harsh our immigration laws. As immigration laws change, terrorists simply adapt.


Republican staff on the House Judiciary Committee provided the Voice with a list of examples of terrorists who have abused U.S. asylum laws. There are seven examples:

  • Three occurred before the 1996 immigration law that tightened asylum rules. The men who plotted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef and Ahmad Ajaj, faked asylum stories in 1992. So did Sheikh Abdul ” the Blind Sheikh” Rahman.
  • Two had applied for asylum but were never granted it by the times of their crimes. Mir Aimal Kansi killed two CIA employees in January 1993, 11 months after he had applied for asylum. Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer was busted in July 1997 for “planning to bomb the New York City subway system.” He had applied for asylum and was released after illegally entering the U.S. in April 1997.
  • One was denied asylum. Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet, the man who killed two people in the July 4, 2000 shooting at LAX airport, was denied asylum, but stuck around for 17 months until his wife won the visa lottery.
  • One was granted asylum. Somali national Nuradin Abdi was granted asylum in 1999. He then left the country, returned, and was busted last year for “a plot to blow up a Columbus [Ohio] area shopping mall.” His asylum was revoked because, the government said, he lied about almost all of the information he provided to get it.

Immigrant advocates don’t find the list impressive. “Those who seek refuge in America from persecution are our allies in the fight for democracy and against despotism,” argues the NILC. “By sheltering these courageous individuals, we send a signal of support to those who remain under the kinds of regimes that foster terrorism.”

The United States in 2003 received 42,000 applications for asylum (people who come here but say they can’t go home, as opposed to refugees who apply overseas). The government approved 29 percent of them.