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When Colorado state Sen. Andy McElhany (R) championed adoption of the strictest identification requirements in the country, his aim was to keep illegal immigrants off state welfare rolls. He didn't anticipate making it harder for his 15-year-old daughter to get a learner's permit.
But that's what happened when his wife and daughter showed up at the Division of Motor Vehicles office in Colorado Springs in September. They brought the teen's passport, only to discover DMV had changed the rules and a passport was no longer a sufficient form of identification.
"There's no reason to believe a 15-year-old girl is going to be running around with a fake passport just to get a driver's permit," a chagrined McElhany said.
Going to the DMV never has been a walk in the park, but it's likely to get even more difficult as states across the country begin to comply with stringent federal identification rules required by the 2005 Real ID Act.
Americans by the tens of millions will have to dig out documents such as Social Security cards and birth certificates, or go to the expense of getting new ones, to renew their driver's licenses. Fears of terrorism and the uproar over illegal immigration are behind the new rules. The Real ID Act is a response to the fact that four of the 19 foreign hijackers on Sept. 11 had obtained valid U.S. driver's licenses.
Worries about voter fraud and the chance that illegal immigrants are taking advantage of taxpayer-funded public services also have prompted a surge in stiffer identification requirements - from voting booths to Medicaid applications. To weed out the few, all Americans growingly need a paper trail to qualify for some of the perks of citizenship.
Colorado ran into legal trouble within months of enacting the nation's toughest ID standards. New rules requiring proof of both identity and legal U.S. residency left some unable to get a driver's license or state ID card. Without ID, they also were left without access to everything from welfare to winter heating assistance to fishing licenses.
A state judge in December temporarily froze the new rules, moving the ID dispute into the courts. Colorado's new law denying benefits to those without proper ID - a bipartisan measure heavily pushed by outgoing Gov. Bill Owens (R) — is the most far-reaching of a record 78 immigration-related laws enacted in 33 states in 2006. They ranged from crackdowns on employers and human traffickers to restrictions on social services and in-state college tuition.
About 100,000 of Colorado's 4.3 million residents get state aid. Some 3,000 immigrants were flagged as possible illegal aliens in the first three months under the state's new ID requirements, and DMV offices detected 150 fake birth certificates, Colorado Revenue Director M. Michael Cooke told Stateline.org
Only 200 people sought temporary waivers from the requirement on grounds of illness or disability or because they lacked the required documents, Cooke said. That shows the new identification requirements "haven't been overly burdensome," she said.
But advocates for the poor said caseworkers are overwhelmed with families needing social services that need help tracking down certified birth certificates. The Denver Department of Human Services, which helps poor people order and pay for duplicates of their birth certificates, had about twice as many folks seeking help a month after the law took effect and expects a doubling again by 2007, according to spokeswoman Sue Cobb.
Three people turned away at Colorado's DMV filed a class-action lawsuit and won a temporary suspension of the ID rules in December. The judge found the document requirements for a driver's license imposed a hardship and may have been adopted without proper public comment. The DMV, enforcing a new state law, required applicants to provide two from a list of 19 acceptable documents.
One of the plaintiffs, 70-year-old Leon Hill, became homeless after he was robbed of his identification and money shortly after moving to Denver in 2006. He was denied a new ID when he could produce only his original California birth certificate and a photocopy his driving record. Diana Galliano, 42, was denied a driver's license when she presented her valid New York driver's license and U.S. passport. Michael Sullivan, 49, had a birth certificate and photocopies of his stolen New Mexico driver's license and stolen Social Security card.
"In Colorado they've made it so hard to get an ID, it's truly a Catch-22 where citizens can't get an identity card unless they've already got one," said Denver attorney Tim MacDonald, whose law firm is working pro bono on the case with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Despite his daughter's run-in at the DMV, McElhany, the state senator, said he still strongly supports new statutes to crack down on illegal aliens. A national uproar over illegal immigration came to a head last year in Colorado, a non-border state whose immigrant population has nearly quadrupled since 1990 to about 370,000, with half of those undocumented, according to an estimate by the nonprofit Pew Hispanic Center. Fed up by the federal government's inability to stop illegal border crossings, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed 12 immigration bills in a heated special session in July.
Still, even lawmakers who voted for the new ID bill said they will consider tweaking it when the Legislature goes back into session in January. "We need to sit down and make sure that we're not blocking services to those entitled to them and that we're protecting our freedom to live under an efficient and effective government," Colorado state Rep. Bernie Buescher (D) told Stateline.org.
Most of the 245 million driver's license holders in the United States aren't aware yet that the Real ID Act's document dragnet for terrorists, illegal aliens and imposters is about to entangle them, too. But state officials are aware and are set to bang on the doors of the new Congress demanding more time and money to comply.
States are throwing up their hands at the requirement that each driver come in person to motor vehicle offices to renew driver's licenses starting in May 2008. Everyone will have to bring a set of documents proving his identity and residency, although the exact documents haven't been spelled out yet. The papers will have to be verified by government databases that do not yet exist. States also have to create new IDs with anti-counterfeiting security features.
By curbing renewals by mail and online, Real ID will force DMVs to handle 686 million customer transactions face-to-face over five years, instead of the 295 million they would handle anyway, a study by the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators concluded. DMV staffs would have to be doubled at a cost of more than $11 billion to take on the extra duties, state officials estimate.
"When lines at the DMV are snaking around the block and the cost of a driver's license has doubled or tripled, the politicians holding the bag won't stay in office very long," predicts Lee Tien, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco consumer advocacy group that opposes national ID standards. It worries that large government databases of personal information are a threat to privacy and could expose consumers to identify theft and fraud.
Exercising the basic right of citizenship - the right to vote — also is becoming more of a hassle.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) initially was turned away from a polling place on Election Day 2006 when he could not produce his voter registration card and his driver's license showed his old Columbia address instead of the governor's mansion. An election official stood her ground while television crews recorded the scene. Sanford voted later with a newly issued replacement card.
South Carolina is one of 26 states that now require voters to present some form of identification when they show up at the polls. Georgia and Missouri passed laws last year to require government-issued photo IDs at the polls, but courts struck them down. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the state's new voter ID requirements "impermissibly infringe on core voting rights guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution." Georgia's law, which required residents without a state photo ID to purchase a $20 digital identification card to vote, was struck down in federal court. The judge likened the law to an illegal Jim Crow-era poll tax.
Indiana's voter ID law, considered to be the toughest, so far has survived a legal challenge. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a 2-1 vote upheld the law Jan. 4. It requires a government-issued photo ID with the voter's address and signature. Those without proper identification can cast provisional ballots that are counted only if the voter provides proof of identity within 48 hours.
In Arizona, stringent ID requirements approved at the ballot box in 2004 were initially struck down by a federal court. But they were reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court one week before the 2006 election. Arizona voters needed either a government-issued photo ID or two documents showing name and address, such as a utility bill or tax return.
The federal government also is starting to require proof of citizenship for benefits. For the first time, all 46 million poor, elderly and disabled people in state-run Medicaid health insurance programs must produce documents proving they were born in the United States or are here legally. Four states - Georgia, Montana, New Hampshire and New York - already required Medicaid applicants to prove their citizenship. The ID rules, which went into effect last July, are targeted at illegal immigrants, who aren't eligible for Medicaid. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the change will save at least $735 million in taxpayer dollars over the next decade.
But the new law creates problems for Americans without birth certificates or those who can't find them easily. Even parents with a child's birth certificate in hand - including for babies born in U.S. hospitals, making them automatic citizens - must provide separate documentation proving legal state residency, such as school or health records. Advocates and state Medicaid administrators worry the nuisance and cost of securing the right documents could discourage parents from getting their child vaccinated or treated.
The elderly and mentally ill in nursing homes or state institutions are especially liable to slip through the cracks, advocates warn. It's common for senior citizens to let driver's licenses lapse or for Alzheimer's patients to lose track of personal identification, noted Elizabeth Priaulx of the National Disability Rights Network.