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Getting the Real Deal on the Real ID Act

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Backers of the Real ID Act Congress passed on May 11 called the measure a giant step forward in preventing terrorists from obtaining phony government ID cards, the way the September 11 hijackers did. The new law standardizes drivers' licenses nationwide and imposes new mandates for verifying applicants' information.

Real ID was signed into law after only limited debate and no public hearings. And since the act was attached to a supplementary spending bill allocating $82 billion for the war in Iraq and Asian tsunami relief, lawmakers had no choice but to support it -- the Senate vote was 100 to 0.

But the measure's opponents span the spectrum from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Association of Evangelicals. Many condemn the law as the latest step toward national ID cards and internal passports.

In Vermont, the most immediate impact will be the cost of implementing more than $2 million in unfunded mandates over three years, says Bonnie Rutledge, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. Rutledge says many of the new requirements are already in place, such as including vital personal data on licenses and training DMV employees to recognize fake documents.

But one new headache for the DMV will be changes in verification requirements for so-called "breeder documents," the papers used to obtain driver's licenses, such as Social Security cards and birth certificates. "No longer will people necessarily be able to just walk in here and show us their papers, take an eye exam and out they go," Rutledge says. "It may require a second trip, or a third."

The law also requires that all driver's licenses include a photo -- currently, 15 percent of Vermont licenses don't. The DMV will also have to capture those facial images for a national database. That provision has raised the hackles of privacy advocates and civil libertarians.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, warns that the Real ID Act aggregates too much personal information into "a much bigger data warehouse," making it easy to disseminate -- and abuse. "Data is valueless. It's an enabler," Gilbert explains. "Just because you have more information doesn't mean anything. You have to ask, what are you giving up and what are you getting in return?"

Vermont's refugee advocates say the law will do nothing to keep terrorists out, but will make it much harder for human-rights asylum seekers to find safe haven in the U.S. One provision, for example, allows an immigration judge to deny an asylum application based on the refugee's demeanor, such as whether he or she makes eye contact with the judge.

"To focus on asylum seekers for antiterrorism is ridiculous because asylum seekers are already given rigorous security checks as they go through the system," notes Patrick Giantonio of Vermont Refugee Assistance. "This bill deals a serious blow to refugees' chances of finding safe haven in the United States."

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