The Real ID Is Nearly Here, and You Can’t Fly Home Without It

Thanksgiving travel is the stuff of suffering: the crowding, the stress, the weather-induced delays, and, at least for some, dinner with the whole family. But come next year, your trip home, or anywhere else on a commercial airplane, may well demand something even worse: a trip to the DMV.

As of October 1, 2020, the TSA will stop accepting the old-timey driver’s license you’ve likely got in your wallet as valid identification. So will other federal facilities, from courthouses to nuclear power plants. They will instead demand to see your Real ID, which will look just like your old one, with the addition of a star in the upper-right corner. This documentation is mandated by the Real ID Act of 2005, one of many post–September 11, 2001, moves by the federal government to buttress the national security apparatus. Critics, though, say the Real ID is an attack on civil liberties and a potential weapon for discrimination.

The Real ID isn’t a new kind of card—apart from that star. What’s changing is how you get one. Where states have historically set their own rules for verifying the details on your ID, they now must all follow federal standards. That means going to the DMV in person for your first Real ID. And it means showing up with a specific set of documentation that contains your full legal name, date of birth, and social security number. You’ll also need two proofs of address, plus evidence of “lawful status,” meaning that you’re a legal resident of the United States.

If you don’t get that done by the October 1 deadline, your current license won’t get you past the TSA. The security agents will accept other proofs of identity, though: You can show your passport, a permanent resident card, or an ID issued by a federally recognized tribe. And you can always flash your Merchant Mariner Credential.

The idea of standardizing the requirements for obtaining an ID came from the 9/11 Commission, which noted that some of the men who hijacked the planes had fraudulently obtained driver’s licenses. However sensible its starting point, the idea rankled civil-liberty and privacy-minded groups. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation decried the Real ID as a subversive way to create a national ID, because the original plan called for creating a database of licenses across the 50 states. The uses of those IDs could expand to enable broader tracking of individuals, they argued, the way social security numbers are now used for much more than their original purpose. That’s especially true because the law calls for the cards to be machine readable, so the barcode can impart your name, date of birth, address, height, eye color, and more to whoever’s holding the scanner.

The 2005 law was hardly debated before its passage, largely because it went before Congress attached to an $82 billion spending bill that included funds for the Iraq War and relief for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. But the opposition quickly mobilized. Seventeen states, concerned about privacy, the security of a national database of drivers, and the cost of rejiggering licensing operations and having every single driver come in for a new ID, refused to comply.

Those objections pushed Congress to authorize grants to states to defray costs. The Department of Homeland Security dropped some of the most offending elements of the plan, including that national database. It also repeatedly pushed back the deadline for enforcement, from 2008 to 2009 to 2011 to 2013 to October 2020. Gradually, the furor died down, and today all 50 states either offer the Real ID or are on track to do so, according to the DHS.

That die-down comes partly because new technologies, like facial recognition, have captured the attention and resources of privacy advocates, says ACLU policy analyst Jay Stanley. But the watered down Real ID has crept toward implementation and remains a source of concern. “It was always a bad bill, and it’s been a slow-motion disaster,” Stanley says.

A leading complaint is about the law’s demand for proof of legal residence. The 12 states that offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants won’t be able to issue them Real IDs, so they have come up with various responses, most based on giving out two kinds of IDs: one for those who can get a Real ID and one for those who can’t (or don’t want one). Vermont, for example, offers Driver Privilege Cards to undocumented immigrants, which allow them to drive but are marked “Not for Federal Identification,” so TSA and other federal agents won’t accept them.

California has taken a similar route, offering Real IDs as well as standard licenses stamped “federal limits apply.” And while the DHS website “cautions against assuming that possession of a noncompliant card indicates the holder is an undocumented individual,” some worry that giving different kinds of identification to different groups will lead to discrimination. In a 2018 op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin warned of “the further development of what we might call a two-tier America, based on immigration status and economic opportunity.”

Despite those critiques, and after 14 years of fighting, the Real ID has nearly arrived. Of course, it could always be delayed yet again—giving plenty of Americans something to be thankful for come next Thanksgiving.

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