By: Piotr Semeniuk

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, last week the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that subsequent six states – Alabama, Florida, Kansans, Nebraska, Utah and Vermont – comply with the REAL ID Act. The Real ID Act, enacted with a motivation of enhancing national security after 9/11, sets minimum document criteria for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards.

Pursuant to the REAL ID Act, the non-compliant state IDs will be starkly underprivileged under the federal law. The bottom line is that the non-compliant IDs will not be accepted for the so-called federal “official purposes,” e.g., boarding a commercial plane or entering a federal facility.

Beloved by some conservative thinks tanks (such as the Heritage Foundation) and vivaciously questioned by civil rights advocates (such as ACLU) the act triggered some opposition among the states themselves. Last year several states, including the Montana’s governor Brian Schweitzer (listen to the governor discussing his opposition to REAL ID here), sent formal statements to Congress in which they underline the exorbitant costs of the REAL ID Act’s implementation as well as privacy concerns.

The opposition of some state gave rise to a weird legal and political landscape. In this landscape the DHS is regularly setting deadlines for implementation of the Real ID Act and states have constant troubles meeting the required deadlines (to say the least). As a result, the full implementation is being constantly delayed whereas the states and its citizens don’t face any sanctions. The recent deadline was to lapse on 15 January 2013. However, on December 2012 the DHS announced that after January 15, 2013 “states not found to meet the standards will receive a temporary deferment.” This means that residents of the non-compliant states (still the majority of states) will be allowed to enter federal buildings and use interstate plane connections. So far, the period of the determent period remains undefined, and the DHS is heralding to develop a schedule for the phased enforcement of the REAL ID states commitments “by early fall 2013.”

Where is it all going? It seems that the nationwide implementation of the Act is stuck in limbo. My guess is that the federal government would not resort to a sanction of rejecting the cards issued by non-compliant states. Such rejection would cause, with regard to the ban on boarding planes, a paralysis of the movement within the whole country. The DHS even admits its non-readiness to hit the ordinary people with sanctions by announcing that, while developing a schedule for the phased enforcement of the Act, residents of all states “will be treated in a fair manner.” Hence, at least so far, the rebellious states will likely have a final saying in relation to the implementation of the REAL ID Act.

However, these of advocates focusing on the Real Act should be cautious not to overlook another legislative effort that comes close to what some people call “a de facto ID national database.” What I have in mind is the so-called E-Verify system. E-Verify is a national, electronic database administered by the Department of Homeland Security (you can access E-Verify here) where employers can check if a person can legally work in the US. So far the system has been voluntary for employers. If they participate in E-Verify, when they hire an employee, they are required to enter information into the system via the web. E-Verify will then determine whether an employee got an approval or not. The system has been criticized for many flaws, including frequent errors leading to mischaracterization of the employees’ status (watch Chris Calbrese from ACLU discussing the downsides of E-Verify here).

Pursuant to ACLU, last week a group of eight bipartisan senators ( the so-called Gang of Eight) proposed a reform to federal immigrations laws expanding the scope of E-Verify. If the proposal was passed, E-Verify would come even closer to a de facto ID federal database. First, the proposal calls for the employers’ mandatory participation in E-Verify; second, if passed, it would require states to supply E-Verify with data on state driver’s licenses (including photographs).

It is up for discussion, whether it is a successful implementation of the Real ID Act or a potential modification to the E-Verify system that will bring the US closer to having a de facto ID national database. One thing is certain. There are forces in DC obstinately pushing for electronic collection of more and more identifying data.