Senate Backs Measure to Tighten ID Requirements

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Real ID Act, which the Senate approved yesterday, would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain identification that the federal government will recognize when they try to board an airplane, fill out tax forms or open a bank account. But the measure would affect U.S. citizens as well.

Americans would need an authentic copy of their birth certificate to apply for a new driver's license or renew an old one. The certificates must be verified at the counter by a Department of Motor Vehicles agent, along with other identification, such as Social Security numbers and utility bills. Governors, legislatures and officials in motor vehicle departments oppose the act, saying it would lead to agonizingly long lines at DMV offices.

States would not be required to comply with the legislation, which President Bush is expected to sign, but their residents would pay a price if they did not. They probably would be turned away when they tried to enter airport gates, unless they had other identification, such as a passport.

In addition to tightening restrictions on acquiring driver's licenses, Real ID also would create more obstacles for immigrants seeking asylum and give Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff unprecedented authority to supersede environmental laws in completing a three-mile stretch of fence at the Mexican border with San Diego. Critics of the measure say Chertoff may be able to exert that new authority at other border spots as well.

Real ID's driver's license provisions "will affect everyone, citizens and noncitizens alike," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which opposes the measure. "I think citizens are going to be surprised at how burdensome this is on them."

Most of the burden would fall on those who lack the proper identification that allows most Americans to move about freely. Illegal immigrants would still be able to obtain documents that allow them to drive, but the papers would bear a stamp, or color code, showing that they should be used solely for that purpose and not as identification.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said that complying with the new regulations within three years, as the measure requires, would cost states $500 million to $700 million. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the measure's sponsor, said the cost is closer to $100 million.

Lawmakers changed some of the language that would have created even more daunting obstacles for asylum-seekers. In the original version, immigration judges had the power to order an asylum-seeker deported, and federal courts could not stay the order, as they can now. That provision was withdrawn in negotiations because lawmakers feared that refugees would be sent back to nations where they had been persecuted or tortured.

Negotiators also lifted a 1,000-per-year limit on the number of women who can enter the country under claims of being forced to have abortions.

"There was some improvement," said Eleanor Acer, executive director of Human Rights First, an advocacy group for asylum-seekers and refugees. "But I'm very concerned that this bill will make it much more difficult for refugees to get asylum in this country."

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