A Look At National ID Card Programs

At the heart of the Arizona immigration law is a requirement to show that you're here legally. For the past decade, Washington has been wrestling with a couple of ideas about how to verify that. One was Real ID; another was E-Verify. Robert Siegel talks to Chris Strohm, national security reporter for Congress Daily, to check on where those programs stand now.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

At the heart of the Arizona immigration law is a requirement to show that you're here legally. And for the entire decade, Washington has been wrestling with a couple of big ideas about verifying who we are and whether we belong here.

One of those ideas was Real ID that was supposed to guarantee that a driver's license or a state ID card from the DMV is credible and secure, backed up by real documentation of who you are and where you come from, as opposed to the documents that the 9/11 hijackers and countless illegal immigrants have obtained over the years.

The other big idea was E-Verify that was supposed to let employers search government databases for information on perspective hires. And if you weren't legit, E-Verify was supposed to show that.

Well, to check on where those programs stand now, we turn to Chris Strohm, who is national security reporter for Congress Daily.

Hi.

Mr. CHRIS STROHM (National Security Reporter, Congress Daily): Thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: And first, Real ID. Where does that idea of the secured driver's license based on primary sourced documents, even if it's a birth certificate in another alphabet, where does it stand today?

Mr. STROHM: Well, Real ID was the grand plan to verify people's identities, but for all practical purposes, it's dead at this point. Congress is moving another piece of legislation that is called the Pass ID, which is a watered down version of Real ID.

SIEGEL: One of the objections to Real ID was that the federal government told the states you'd better put in a lot more work in identifying a perspective driver or someone with a license, and you can figure out how to pay for it.

Mr. STROHM: Yeah. The states had a lot of objections to Real ID. And I think it's important to remember that Real ID was passed in 2005 without a real debate about what the implications would be. And so governors at the time were objecting and they said it was going to cost too much money. And so what Congress is trying to do now with Pass ID is not include the strict requirements that were included in Real ID and give the states additional funding.

SIEGEL: Now, E-Verify. One recent study conducted for the Department of Homeland Security found that the E-Verify system typically produces very few false negatives. That is, if you're a citizen, it almost always finds that you are a citizen. But just over half the illegal immigrants were found to be legal, I gather, because they had more successfully stolen or borrowed someone else's identity and Social Security number.

Mr. STROHM: Yes, it's interesting. When the study came out, it found that illegal immigrants were able to go through E-Verify, the system that's supposed to confirm that somebody is in the country legally. And so the Homeland Security Department, you know, has been saying that they've been making changes to the E-Verify program. Currently, about 200,000 employers in the U.S. use the system. So there's a long way to go before the system can be fully functional to verify all workers in the country.

SIEGEL: Then there's a proposal from New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and others to have a Social Security card with biometrics that would amount to, I gather, a national ID card.

Mr. STROHM: That's right. Senator Schumer and Senator Reid have put out this proposal now as part of their comprehensive immigration reform framework. Again, this is another grand plan that they have. They say that within six years, there's going to be this biometric system that's going to be in place, where all workers are going to have a Social Security card that's going to most likely contain a fingerprint and that's going to be used to verify people's identity. Again, this is a plan that really needs to be fleshed out. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done to find out what this is going to do.

SIEGEL: Now, privacy advocates and civil libertarians and other libertarians, I might add, are no big fans of systems that create, in effect, a national database of who we are, what our fingerprints are and where we're working.

Mr. STROHM: That's right. That's why there's going to be a lot of opposition as the legislation tries to advance through the Senate. At this point, the proposal that Senator Schumer and Senator Reid put out says that there will not be a national database. But talking with privacy advocates, there's a lot of skepticism that that can actually be done. At some point, you need to have that biometric identifier contained in some kind of database in order to verify it.

SIEGEL: Well, Chris Strohm, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. STROHM: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Chris Strohm who is national security reporter for Congress Daily.

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