California’s Driver’s Licenses: a Double-Barreled Unhappy Start for 2016

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By Joe Guzzardi

Joe is a CAPS Senior Writing Fellow whose commentaries about California's social issues have run in newspapers throughout California and the country for nearly 30 years. Contact Joe at joeguzzardi@capsweb.org, or find him on Twitter @joeguzzardi19.

The writer's views are his own.

January 19, 2016

We’ve news in California from the Department of Motor Vehicles to start the New Year. First, the DMV announced that during 2015, 605,000 licenses, or almost 50 percent of the total, went to illegal aliens.

In 2014, shortly after the passage of Assembly Bill 60 (the legislation that granted aliens driving permission), state officials projected that 1.5 million applications would be submitted within the first three years, a much too conservative estimate as the current data proves. More than half of all new driver’s licenses issued in California through 2015’s first six months, double the projection, went to unlawful immigrants. The taxpayer-funded costs to provide licenses to illegal immigrants included opening four new licensing centers, hiring and training 1,000 new employees, extending office hours, developing guidelines and hosting 200 public outreach events.

Second, California driver’s licenses are still not REAL ID compliant, and therefore cannot be used as federal identification. California received another extension after an earlier waver expired on January 10, 2016. The revised compliance date is October 2016. REAL ID requires a person’s name, gender, birth date, a principal address, a digital photo, signature and physical attributes, including height, weight, hair and eye color, as well as citizenship status and Social Security number. Importantly, Real ID driver’s licenses must have a chip or magnetic strip containing the above information in a machine-readable format.

On January 8, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced REAL ID’s final phase. Effective January 22, 2018, air travelers with a driver’s license or identification card issued by a state that does not meet REAL ID’s standards, unless like California it has been granted an extension, must present to the Transportation Security Administration acceptable alternative identification. Read the current list of each state’s REAL ID status here.

Immigration and privacy advocates rail against REAL ID. The immigration lobby claims that aliens who reside in states like California that don’t require legal status to qualify for a license will be irreparably harmed. Civil liberty organizations and libertarians claim that the license information, when shared nationally, will expose the data’s vulnerability and increase the chances of making it illegally accessible.

Then, there’s the cost. The New York Times estimates that REAL ID will cost $3.9 billion. Rebuilding One World Trade Center after it was taken down by terrorists September 11, 2001, cost $3.8 billion, so the dollar cost of implementing security measures is about the same as the fiscal fallout just in New York from ignoring prudent security legislation. Of course no amount of money can compensate the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 or cushion the emotional toll on survivors who work or live in lower Manhattan, and barely escaped death.

In 2005, Congress enacted the REAL ID Act to enhance the nation’s security based on the findings that 18 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 had acquired a total of 28 driver’s licenses and state-issued IDs in five states. Even after the worst attack on American soil killed nearly 3,000 people, and despite Paris, San Bernardino, Boston and other terrorist attacks since, only partial progress has been made toward full compliance. Unless California and the other noncompliant states meet their revised deadlines, U.S. citizens could be denied travel privileges on commercial airline flights.

The nation is entering its second decade without REAL ID, an inexcusably long period given the ongoing potential for more terrorism-related deaths. REAL ID would help protect Americans by making sure licenses are secure and, at the same time, impede a terrorist’s ability to carry out future attacks.

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