The federal government recently sent a message to Washington lawmakers: Bring the state’s driver’s license and identification laws into compliance with the national REAL ID Act.
Passed in 2005 upon the recommendation of the commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the REAL ID law is designed to make it more difficult for potential terrorists to avoid detection. Washington, as one of two states — New Mexico is the other — that does not require ID holders to prove citizenship or legal status, has rules more lax than the national standard. Earlier this year, the federal government granted Washington a waiver, recognizing that the Legislature was considering changes to state law. But when lawmakers failed to act, the Department of Homeland Security served notice that the state’s standard driver’s licenses and ID cards are not up to federal regulations.
All of this might sound like so much bureaucratic red tape, but it will have consequences for Washington residents. The most notable is that a state driver’s license would not be adequate for the holder to get through airport security or take a seat on an airplane. According to the state Department of Licensing, the feds will decide in December how the action impacts airline passengers, and any additional restrictions would be enforced beginning four months after that announcement.
The need for strict enforcement of identification laws is understandable during the age of global terrorism, as is the need for uniform compliance. If Washington or any other state has weak standards for identification cards, that state will become the preferred point of entry for would-be attackers. The chain of national security is only as strong as its weakest link.
Currently, Washington offers enhanced driver’s licenses and identification cards that require proof of citizenship or lawful status and which meet federal standards. Those enhanced licenses or cards cost an extra $18, and about 500,000 Washington residents have received them.
The warning from the Department of Homeland Security should prompt legislators to put the issue near the top of the agenda in January. State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said: “We don’t have a choice. The choice has been taken out of our hands.” In other words, it is time to act.
Gov. Jay Inslee has recommended a two-tier licensing system like one that is in place in California. That system would continue to offer enhanced ID for those who provide proof of citizenship. Those who are unable or unwilling to provide that proof would be issued limited licenses that would not be adequate for federal purposes, requiring an additional form of identification — such as a passport — to board an airplane.
One of the issues surrounding driver’s licenses and identification cards is the nation’s inability to deal with immigration reform. Some hard-liners might want to use state law to root out illegal immigrants, but that would only exacerbate the situation. Not providing driver’s licenses for residents who are unable to prove citizenship would not prevent many of them from driving; it would only lead to more people driving without licenses and without insurance. It also would deprive the state of some licensing money, which goes toward transportation funds.
Solutions to Washington’s licensing conundrum are readily available and relatively painless. Legislators need to make them a priority next year.