The “Real ID” program to catch illegal immigrants: Stalled? Dead?

This program, hatched by Congress last Spring to impose immigrant IDs through the states’ driving license systems, seems to be going nowhere, a reflection of the lack of serious thought put into the idea at the outset. I am presenting here a summary of the bill and excerpts of an information technology magazine article from 2005.
Homeland Security Watch has been monitoring progress and as of late January 2006 found the program to be in a near-complete mess, with wildly ranging estimates of costs and an array of opponents. Consider this: to make Real ID work, you need to get the Registry of Motor Vehicle Departments to not only get their individual IT systems up to snuff, but then to coordinate with a single national IT standard.
Now for a summary of the bill and an early analysis of the IT challenges….

Title: To establish and rapidly implement regulations for State driver’s license and identification document security standards, to prevent terrorists from abusing the asylum laws of the United States, to unify terrorism-related grounds for inadmissibility and removal, and to ensure expeditious construction of the San Diego border fence. Sponsor: Rep Sensenbrenner, F. James, Jr. [WI-5] (introduced 1/26/2005)
Title II: Improved Security for Driver’s Licenses and Personal Identification Cards – (Sec. 202) Prohibits Federal agencies from accepting State issued driver’s licenses or identification cards unless such documents are determined by the Secretary to meet minimum security requirements, including the incorporation of specified data, a common machine-readable technology, and certain anti-fraud security features.
Sets forth minimum issuance standards for such documents that require: (1) verification of presented information; (2) evidence that the applicant is lawfully present in the United States; and (3) issuance of temporary driver’s licenses or identification cards to persons temporarily present that are valid only for their period of authorized stay (or for one year where the period of stay is indefinite).
(Sec. 203) Requires States, as a condition of receiving grant funds or other financial assistance under this title, to participate in the interstate compact regarding the sharing of driver’s license data (the Driver License Agreement).
(Sec. 204) Amends the Federal criminal code to prohibit trafficking in actual as well as false authentication features for use in false identification documents, document-making implements, or means of identification. Requires the Secretary to enter into the appropriate aviation security screening database information regarding persons convicted of using false driver’s licenses at airports.
(Sec. 205) Authorizes the Secretary to make grants to assist States in conforming to the minimum standards set forth in this title.
(Sec. 206) Gives the Secretary all authority to issue regulations, set standards, and issue grants under this title. Gives the Secretary of Transportation all authority to certify compliance with such standards. Authorizes the Secretary to grant States an extension of time to meet the minimum document requirements and issuance standards of this title, with adequate justification.
(Sec. 207) Repeals overlapping document provisions of the IRTPA.
(Sec. 208) States that nothing in this title shall be construed to affect the authorities and responsibilities of the Secretary of Transportation or the States under existing laws governing the establishment of a National Driver Register.
‘Real ID’ Faces Reality: The federal government wants driver’s licenses that are more trustworthy and
tech-enabled. State IT leaders will have to figure out how to make that happen.
By Eric Chabrow and Larry Greenemeier , InformationWeek
May 16, 2005

n May 2005 Congress attached to a military spending bill a provision to set up a national identification card: “Real ID.” Congress’s main interest was in controlling the movement of immigrants by, in effect, controlling their access to driver’s licenses though the full reach of the program may be more comprehensive.

The key provisions of the bill are that states by 2008 will need to verify data with the feds and other states before issuing driver’s licenses, and the cards must include certain minimum data and be “machine readable.” The act is billed as voluntary for states and therefore isn’t creating a true national ID. But licenses from noncompliant states won’t be acceptable ID to get on an airplane or for any other federally regulated use.

Coordination of databases:

The most-difficult challenge created by the act will be sharing birth-certificate information, Social Security numbers, and other data found on a driver’s license across multiple agencies in the 50 states, territories, tribal jurisdictions, and the federal government. It isn’t necessarily cutting-edge IT, says Richard Hunter, a Gartner VP and research director. States will need to restructure existing databases, which is more time-consuming and costly than innovative. What’s difficult will be determining rules for access, management, and security for these state records if they’re all connected.


There’s already some cross-state data sharing. Thirty-nine states use EDI to access a Social Security database to verify a driver’s name and Social Security number, which this bill requires. Other verifications will be tougher, since most states don’t have birth certificates and other vital records stored digitally. “It’s one thing to present a document; it’s another thing to accept the document as valid,” says Terry Dillinger, Iowa’s Driver Services’ director.”Most of the documents we can accept at this point for the authentication process are difficult to verify. There’s not a system online to go to in which all states’ vital records can be checked.”

Iowa’s approach to “machine readable” driving license.

Iowa’s driver’s licenses have three pieces of machine-readable technologies: a magnetic strip and a two-dimensional bar code contain the data printed on the face of the card, and a linear bar code contains the cardholder’s driver’s license number. Dillinger expects those will meet the new requirements.