Heck no

May 29, 2007

You gotta admire a governor who doesn't mince words about whether his state will comply with a knuckle-headed mandate from Washington as costly as it is offensive. "No, nope, no way, hell no" was how Montana's Brian Schweitzer put it, according to an Associated Press account of a recent ceremony in which the governor signed one of the strongest rejections so far of the federal law known as Real ID.

Montana is justly proud of being at the forefront of a national rebellion against an anti-immigrant measure the Republican Congress passed in 2005 that would turn state-issued driver's licenses into national identity papers through a chaotic and expensive process fraught with the possibility of privacy violations and identify theft.

This rebellion is a refreshing sign that common sense can prevail even when federal officials fan fears of international terrorism and threaten citizens of recalcitrant states that they won't be able to board airplanes. Nearly a dozen other states have also formally refused to participate in the program, and more than half are debating the choice.

Maryland is biding its time. Motor vehicle officials are preparing about as much as they can without committing funds to a tab estimated at $50 million to $100 million. They wisely anticipate that Real ID may be repealed by Congress or at least remodeled. It has already been delayed once.

Probably chief among concerns for the states is the program's $23 billion price tag, with which the federal government has offered no meaningful help.

But states also bristle at being directed to create - on the cheap - a national identity data bank that Americans have long resisted. All 245 million drivers would have to show up at state offices armed with birth certificates or other proof of citizenship. Their documents would be digitally copied and stored along with biometric material, such as a fingerprint or retina scan. All the state data banks would be linked, so hackers would have access to vital private information for everyone who drives a car.

The ostensible purpose for creating this elaborate system was to improve security in a country that relies so much on driver's licenses for identification. But Real ID got passed (as a last-minute add-on to an emergency war spending bill) because it was sold as an easy way to curb illegal immigration by demanding proof of citizenship for licensed drivers - as though undocumented workers wouldn't simply drive without a license.

Even with a new Democratic Congress, repealing Real ID may be difficult. But if one-fourth or more of the states refuse to participate, the program will likely collapse of its own weight.

Driver's licenses should be secure and tamper-proof, but they can't be even part of the answer to America's immigration problems. Outside of Washington, Americans understand that.

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