Real ID

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We've all heard
the expression, "Politics makes strange bedfellows." Well,
few pieces of legislation have ever shown the truth in this adage
more than HR 418: the so-called Real ID Act.

As you may
recall, last year HR 418 was hidden in a military ("emergency,"
in post-9/11-ese) spending bill for which Congress voted. The Real
ID Act mandates, among other things, that — beginning next year
– states conform to standards set by the Federal government
for issuing driver's licenses and other state-issued documents.
These documents, as well as others, would be embedded with a so-called
"blue chip" that would contain a person's medical and
credit history as well as other personal information. US Passports
issued after September 1, 2005 already contain such a chip.

The legislation
also calls for a system of points — as most states already have
— for obtaining new identification. As an example, in New York a
passport counts as four points and toward the six required to obtain
a driver's license or non-driver's ID. Such a system would be implemented
nationwide as a result of HR 418.

States and
other jurisdictions that issue identification cards have been given
the option to opt out of such a system. However, it's not yet clear
as to whether identification such as driver's licenses from such
places would be usable in other parts of the nation.

The bill can
also deny a person the right to new documentation because the information
on one current document doesn't match that on another. For example,
many people change their names because of marriage or other legitimate
reasons. Such a person may have, for example, one name on her birth
certificate but another on her driver's license, passport or even
on her Social Security card.

What most people
don't realize is that most states already had standards that were
equal to — or more stringent than — those outlined in HR 418 before
it was passed. In New Jersey and other states, lifelong residents
with clean driving — and no criminal – records couldn't renew
their licenses because of discrepancies like the ones outlined in
the previous paragraph.

Unlike neighboring
New York City, the Garden State doesn't have an extensive network
of mass transportation. A person who can't get a driver's license
thus has great difficulty in gaining or keeping employment.

An opponent
of HR 418 succinctly summed up the situation: "You need ID
to get ID. And no ID means no work."

No ID also
means that a person can't board a plane or Amtrak or enter a government
building. It would also more than likely mean no bank account, and
no housing, as banks and most realtors and landlords already require
a State or Federally issued ID before a person can open an account
or sign a mortgage agreement or lease.

Now we come
to the seemingly unlikely alliances that have formed over HR 418.
On one hand, among the bill's proponents we find people — both in
and out of public life — who excoriated Bill Clinton for passing
legislation that gave the Federal government greater control over
people's lives, such as certain provisions of the Telecommunications
Act of 1996. These same people argued that such legislation and
his (Hillary's, actually) proposed universal health care plan (which,
of course, never got off the ground) would turn this country into
something that would make the landscape of "1984" seem
like Utopia.

They have been
joined by hysterical officials and laypeople who will endorse anything
that can be attached to the word "security," however tenuously.
So we see people who find nothing wrong with creating the Police
State of America joining forces with those who claim to oppose governmental
control of people's lives.

On the other
hand, we find an equally strange — if happier – juxtaposition
of interests in opposition to HR 418. They include those who are
opposed to more or higher taxes (no one doubts that HR 418 will
be very expensive to implement) and greater numbers and scope
of regulations.

Allied with
them we find civil libertarians and people who are concerned (rightly
so) about the enormous potential for abuses of the bill's provisions.
In the latter group we find, interestingly enough, security experts
and law enforcement professionals who point out that such a system
would greatly increase the risk of identity theft and other crimes.
They also point out — as Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has — that
the legislation will do nothing to deter criminals such as the 9/11
hijackers from entering the United States.

Joining the
bill's opponents are also advocates for refugees, victims of disasters
such as Hurricane Katrina and people like battered spouses and teenagers
who had to leave untenable family situations. Such people's documents
may have been lost, destroyed or seized. How are they to go about
building or rebuilding their lives if they can't get the necessary

Perhaps most
intriguing of all are the jurisdictions that will or may not comply
with HR 418. The States of New Hampshire and Washington have already
said that they will opt out of the system; the City Council of New
York has talked of doing the same and of persuading New York State
to go along with them.

and socially, two places could hardly be more different than New
York City and New Hampshire, and Washington — outside the Seattle
metropolitan area — bears more political resemblance to New Hampshire
than it does to nearby California. (For that matter, much of upstate
New York is in a different political grove from the Big Apple.)
Their reasons may be different, but they have all seen the potential
for harm in HR 418.

would've thought he or she would ever see the day when Amnesty International
allies would align themselves with state's rights advocates? I,
for one, hope those strange bedfellows have a beautiful friendship
— one that overcomes the mindless fear and cynicism that engendered
HR 418 in the first place.

22, 2006

Nicholas [send her mail]
teaches English at the City University of New York.

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