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Treat Driver's Licenses as What They Are: Domestic Passports

Impose federal card standards to boost security.

September 23, 2002|AMITAI ETZIONI

California Gov. Gray Davis is weighing whether to sign a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. But Washington, not Sacramento, should set the rules. While we hate to admit it, the driver's license has become a de facto national ID card. As such, we must make it more reliable by setting a federal standard for its issuance.

Without an ID, it is impossible to board an airplane or enter many public buildings and private places of commerce. Most of the time, that ID is a driver's license.

There are two ways we avoid acknowledging the true nature of driver's licenses. We can claim that they are not state-imposed because there are no penalties for refusing to get one. If you believe this, either your city has a terrific public transportation system or you're rich, retired or homebound. Or, we can claim that a driver's license is not a national document because licenses are issued by the 50 states and the District of Columbia. But licenses issued by one state are honored by all others, so they are, like it or not, domestic passports.

And just as well. If Sept. 11 has taught us anything, it is that we must be able to identify people. All the watch lists of suspected terrorists that the FBI, CIA and Immigration and Naturalization Service are developing are of little use if we cannot tell who is whom.

The INS has introduced a program under which U.S. colleges and other schools are required to report to the federal government whether enrolled foreign students have shown up. But if these young men and women do not show up, and perhaps are taking flying lessons instead of studying English literature, how are we to find them if no one is required to carry a national ID card?

Here's the main rub: Each state makes its own rules for issuing licenses; each decides how much or how little documentation is required to verify that the person receiving one of these de facto national ID cards really is whom he or she claims to be.

The situation is akin to that of the early 18th century, when many jurisdictions were free to issue their own currency and the people who traded in it had to trust that various tenders were worth the paper on which they were printed.

Accepting the idea of a national ID card and implementing it would do more than help catch those on a terrorist watch list. For example, it could help find criminals on the lam, keep sex offenders who had served their sentences from working at child-care centers and prevent people from collecting benefits at multiple government agencies.

As on the new 25-cent coins, each state can depict its own traditions and symbols, but the licenses' reliability and authenticity would be guaranteed by the same federal standard.

Thus, put a bear on mine and an orange on Jeb Bush's, but enact the bill introduced by Reps. James P. Moran (D-Va.) and Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.) that would require that all driver's licenses and other state-issued identification cards have computer chips containing biometric data, encryption and other tamper-resistant security measures.

We could keep 50 databases to please civil libertarians and states-rights die-hards, as long as federal law enforcement authorities were allowed ready access to them. However, if we have outgrown such games, we must acknowledge that we need a national database if these IDs are to do their essential job. After all, if one state grants an illegal immigrant a license, all the others will have to live with the consequences.


Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University and author of "The Limits of Privacy" (Basic Books, 1999).

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