Boycott Real ID

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Do you love your freedoms?

Then defy your state and national governments—and refuse to get a “Real ID.”

“Real ID” is an idea so bad it should be boycotted by patriots of all stripes.  “Real ID” refers to state driver’s licenses that meet newly enforced federal guidelines. As of October 1, 2020, you will not be allowed to use a driver’s license to board a domestic flight—or to enter federal facilities—unless that driver’s license a Real ID.

Real ID driver’s licenses have stars on them, but otherwise look like the licenses you already have. The difference is the privacy you must surrender; to get one, you have to produce original birth certificates, social security cards, other personal ID, multiple proofs of residence, and other information that confirms your lawful status in the U.S. 

Such requirements may sound like they boost security, but the opposite is true. New security risks are created when people submit more identification into databases searchable by a government already surveilling our calls and digital communications. Real ID provides new ways for hackers and terrorists to steal our identities, and for governments and corporations to discriminate against us.

And by requiring Real ID for travel within the country, the American government is creating an “internal passport” of the sort that oppressive regimes (like North Korea) use to limit their people’s freedom of movement, and to create distinct classes of citizens. 

With state governments—including, disgracefully, California’s—now encouraging people to get Real IDs, the best defense is to refuse to comply. If enough Americans opt out, Real ID can’t become the standard. Those 100 million Americans without Real IDs, or other federally approved IDs like passports,  should refuse to get them. Those of us who have compliant IDs should refuse to present them, and insist on accessing airports and government buildings our tax dollars pay for. And we all should be complaining to elected officials until the Real ID is as dead as Stalin, the sort of person who would have appreciated it. 

This American horror story started with 9/11, when hijackers used fraudulently purchased Virginia driver’s licenses to board planes. After that, states cracked down on driver’s license fraud and beefed up security measures. There haven’t been any hijackings since. But the American security state never is satisfied. So Real ID legislation passed in 2005, with little debate, since it was part of a tsunami relief bill. 

But many states, citing the costs of compliance and privacy concerns,  resisted implementation of Real ID— that the federal government delayed enforcement. President Obama, a critic of Real ID, ignored the requirement.

But the Trump administration revived Real ID in 2017, claiming it was needed to protect the country against foreigners. The Department of Homeland Security has successfully pressured states to comply through carrots (more federal money), sticks (states fear their citizens couldn’t board planes), and the politics of looking weak on terrorism. 

With the states having caved, regular citizens are the last defense against Real ID’s many perils. 

Real IDs could quickly become national IDs that might be required for getting a job, renting an apartment, arranging child care, picking up a prescription, boarding a train, making hotel reservations, paying with a credit card, or—eventually—exercising your right to vote. Before long, those who can’t get Real IDs will be second-class citizens.

The whole idea is discriminatory—against Americans. Under Real ID, an international criminal with a valid passport can automatically travel around our country as he or she wishes. But your neighbor who  can’t produce a certified birth certificate or Social Security card won’t fly Southwest to Phoenix to watch spring training baseball. If Real ID were required now, 80,000 people could be barred from boarding planes daily. 

Real ID will enable the federal government’s discrimination against immigrants, since those who can’t secure a Real ID will become ICE targets.  Naturalized Americans are being denied Real IDs because of bureaucratic suspicions about their foreign birth certificates. Security experts say Real IDs will be easily hacked, and since they are machine readable, will allow for wider tracking of individuals.

Real ID compliance is tying California’s overwhelmed DMV in knots, since the vast majority of our 27 million drivers don’t have Real ID licenses. In 2018, California issued two million Real IDs—before the Trump administration changed the standards for issuance without warning. (Those Real IDs remain valid, but must be renewed at the different standard).  

So let’s stop complying. California shouldn’t issue more Real IDs, and the legislature should bar businesses from requiring customers to show Real ID.  Defiance isn’t easy, but it’s our best strategy here. Because Real ID is incompatible with life in a free society.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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