Driver's License Changes Test Limits of Civil Liberties

In the nation's war on terrorism, some drivers license agencies have taken on responsibilities never envisioned. Many public officials now view them as one of the nation's primary tools for weeding out potential terrorists and identity thieves.

It used to be that if you wanted to renew your driver's license you just showed up at your local department of motor vehicles, handed in your old one and presto walked out with an awful mug-shot of yourself on a shiny new piece of plastic.

But these days it takes more than a smile and signature to prove your identity especially if you're a refugee or immigrant working or pursuing an education in the United States.

In the nation's war on terrorism, some driver's license agencies have taken on responsibilities never envisioned. Many public officials now view them as one of the nation's primary tools for weeding out potential terrorists and identity thieves.

Since September 11, nearly every state has tightened its licensing rules and vigilance against fraud because the 19 terrorists that shook the nation to its core that day were carrying U.S. driver's permits.

At least 61 bills have been introduced nationwide dealing specifically with immigrant licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center .

But only a dozen states - California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia - have actually passed laws or implemented new administrative rules that change the way non-citizens' licenses are handled. Nearly all make obtaining a license more difficult for immigrants, but two South Carolina and New Mexico have expanded the categories of people who are eligible.

Some of the more restrictive changes have sparked at least one lawsuit and numerous complaints from civil liberties groups about possible rights infringements.

"In the old days, a driver's license said only that somebody had tested you and you knew the rules of the road. . . But now the driver's license is absolutely a gateway into all kinds of benefits," says Iowa Office of Driver Services Director Shirley Andre.

"While none of us wants a national identifier, there's a much broader recognition that the driver's license...has really become the defacto identification card that we use," Andre added.

Before the terrorist attacks, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators had been pushing for states to adopt universal minimum standards for all licenses and to link their databases the same way they do now for commercial driver's licenses. The effort has taken on a new urgency since the attacks, but many state legislatures are balking at the proposals and have chosen to go their own way in favor of incremental changes in existing regulations.

Some in Congress have also proposed a federalized set of identification standards, but it has yet to pass and faces strong objections from state leaders.

Advocacy groups worry that unilateral actions may end up trampling on the basic rights of non-citizens , who fear being branded as "undesirables" in the nation's anti-terror effort.

The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union and several other advocacy groups have sued the state to halt the implementation of a new state rule that would tie driver's license expirations to U.S. visa expiration dates. Many states have done the same thing since Sept. 11. But Minnesota's rule goes one step further by stamping non-citizens' licenses with their visa expiration dates and the words "Status Check."

The rule was part of a larger anti-terrorism bill that failed in the legislature earlier this year. But a state administrative judge approved it under pressure from transportation officials, who insist it will help root out potential terrorists. Opponents contend the rule is simply an attempt to monitor non-citizen residents of Minnesota.

"The states shouldn't be doing anything except issuing driver's licenses. The job of watching the borders and identifying people to see who comes in and out is the job of the federal government," says MCLU director Chuck Samuelson.

The Iowa Civil Liberties Union has taken a similar stand on a new rule that singles out foreign nationals by marking their licenses in red with the words: "Nonrenewable Documentation Required." Opponents liken the stamp to a "Scarlet Letter," or a Star of David, which was used by the Nazis to identify Jews.

"It's not necessary to stigmatize these people, especially now," says ICLU Director Ben Stone. "In this atmosphere of heightened nationalism, there is clearly the potential for trouble."

So far, more than 700 licenses have been issued with the new stamps, and Iowa motor vehicles administrator Andre says the agency has received few complaints from applicants. She acknowledges, however, that it seems to be "creating a lot of controversy" with some groups but says debate over the rule's intent "has been blown significantly out of proportion."

No lawsuit is planned for now, says Stone, but Gov. Tom Vilsack has been asked to rescind the rule and Attorney General Tom Miller has been petitioned to issue a legal opinion on it.

Complaints about rule changes have surfaced in other states as well.

In Pennsylvania, a new policy requires more specific documentation for immigrants and bars temporary foreign visitors from getting a license until they've been in the country for one year.

"That's a major change...and I don't think they realize the broader implications of this," said Judy Bernstein-Baker, director of the state chapter of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "It affects people who are here legally seeking asylum, people who are living here because of their work or have come here under the immigration family program. They need to be able to get around. People forget that immigrants have become such an important part of our economy."

In Kentucky, meanwhile, several groups are now protesting a new requirement that foreign nationals report to one of 12 state transportation divisions to renew their licenses instead of the local county clerk's office like everyone else.

Overall, there have been few concerns raised in most states, says Kendra Stewart, a public administration professor at Eastern Kentucky University. That's because most states have moved slowly and cautiously in implementing driver's license changes, she says, and many have included civil liberties groups in the process.

Stewart has surveyed every state's homeland security efforts in preparation for an article on anti-terrorism with her colleague Edward Sharkey, a political science professor at Columbia College in South Carolina. Stewart and Sharkey have also received input from more than a third of state ACLU directors and say few have raised concerns about rights infringements.

"Overall, I don't think the actions taken by the states have been particularly egregious," says Sharkey, a self-described civil libertarian. "Whether (they) are equipped to handle the changes is another story. It's a tough time for states to deal with this because they are just strapped financially."

That's certainly the case in New Jersey, where fiscal problems have delayed new reforms targeting driver's license fraud. The state has boosted funding for its driver's license agencies, but at levels still below what they were a decade ago.

New Jersey is one of the several states where the 19 September 11 hijackers were able to obtain driver's licenses that allowed them to move about the country freely. The hijackers were also carrying identification from Virginia and Florida.