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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights Monitor - Volume 17, No. 1 - Winter 2007

Backlash against the REAL ID Act Grows

Enacted in 2005 with no hearings and little debate, by being slipped into an unrelated bill, the "REAL ID Act" finally garnered public attention in 2007, rendering the future of the controversial law uncertain.

The law, touted as a response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist airline hijackings, called upon states to radically overhaul the manner in which they issue drivers' licenses and other forms of identification. Under it, states would need to determine the immigration or citizenship status of every applicant, and have to verify each piece of identification -- such as a birth certificate or utility bill -- with the agency that issued it.

The law also required states to compile personal identifying information into databases that would be connected to other states and made available to other countries. Beginning in May 2008, state ID cards that did not comply with the federal requirements would no longer be acceptable for any "federal purpose," such as entering airport terminals or federal buildings.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) adamantly opposed the measure when it was introduced, and organized a coalition effort focused on defeating it. "These are provisions that need really serious study, and none whatsoever has taken place," LCCR Counsel Rob Randhava explained at the time.

The coalition succeeded in watering down several unrelated provisions of the bill, including harsh new rules for asylum applicants, and an unprecedented provision that allowed the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive "any law" in the name of building border fences. But at the insistence of the House leadership, the drivers' license provisions remained intact.

During 2005 and 2006, a number of organizations -- most notably the American Civil Liberties Union -- opposed the law on a state-by-state basis. Several months after its enactment, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee summed up state reactions: "The federal government doesn't have the guts to put out a national ID card, and they are trying to make 50 states come up with this program... It's absurd. The cost to the states will be staggering."

A number of state legislatures openly rebelled against the law, declaring that they would not comply. State opposition snowballed in late 2006, when the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors Association released a study estimating that it would cost states $11 billion over five years to comply with the law.

In early 2007, Congress appeared poised to take another look at the 2005 law. Rep. Tom Allen, D. Maine, and Sens. Daniel Akaka, D. Hawaii, and John Sununu, R. N.H., introduced legislation to repeal it. But in a tacit acknowledgement of the costs and problems with implementing the law by May 2008, in February 2007, the Department of Homeland Security revised its deadline, announcing that REAL ID-compliant cards would not be required for commercial air travel until mid-2013. More recently, the deadline was extended to 2018.

Critics of the REAL ID Act believe that the law must be repealed. "DHS is doing back flips in order to get states to say they are complying with REAL ID. It was flawed in principle from the beginning, and DHS is attempting a 'Hail Mary' pass to try to coerce and convince states that what they are doing under existing statutes is acceptable," ACLU Legislative Counsel Timothy Sparapani told The Washington Post. The future of the REAL ID Act today is uncertain.

Seventeen states have now enacted laws or resolutions stating that they will not comply with the law and Congress has repeatedly blocked efforts to fund it.


The Civil Rights Monitor is an annual publication that reports on civil rights issues pending before the three branches of government. The Monitor also provides a historical context within which to assess current civil rights issues. Previous issues of the Monitor are available online. Browse or search the archives

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