If underage drinkers find it so easy to manufacture fake IDs, what's stopping terrorists from doing the same? And why is it so simple for illegal immigrants to acquire legitimate drivers' licenses?

These questions troubled Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., who introduced legislation earlier this year designed to keep terrorists from using drivers' licenses as identification.

The broad set of rules, known as the Real ID Act, would require states to issue federally approved electronic identification cards, including drivers' licenses. Licenses and ID cards must include a digital photo and anti-counterfeiting features, such as undefined "machine-readable technology with defined minimum data elements." Radio frequency ID tags or magnetic strips are two examples of machine-readable technology the ID cards could feature.

In addition, states would be required to demand proof of the person's Social Security card and birth certificate before issuing a license. States would also be required to link their license databases if they wished to continue receiving federal funds.

Technically the legislation's requirements aren't mandatory, however, if states don't opt in and use them for issuing drivers' licenses, the licenses would be unacceptable at any federal service or site.Any American without approved identification would be denied access to all federally controlled sites, such as airplanes, trains, national parks, federal courthouses and other places.

Because the new standards aren't mandatory, the legislation doesn't create a national identification system, according to the bill's supporters.

"The goal of the Real ID Act is to prevent another 9/11-type attack by disrupting terrorist travel," said Sensenbrenner when he introduced the legislation. "American citizens have the right to know who is in their country, that people are who they say they are, and that the name on a driver's license is the holder's real name, not some alias."

The legislation, which passed in the House on Feb. 10, 2005, is under consideration in the Senate where its fate is less certain. At press time, the bill had been read twice in the Senate and referred to the Senate's Committee on the Judiciary.

Opponents Find Flaws

Though the bill is backed by numerous groups, including the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License and the 9/11 Families for a Secure America, it has a broad and diverse group of detractors.

State groups, such as the National Governors Association (NGA) and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), oppose the bill. So does the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as the American Conservative Union, the Free Congress Foundation and the Republican Liberty Caucus, to name a few.

The ACLU opposes the Real ID Act for what it sees as an anti-immigration bill masquerading as rules to stop terrorism. The bill would prohibit states from issuing drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. Currently 10 states issue licenses to applicants regardless of their immigration status.

"The House has made one of its first must-pass bills a measure that would do little to enhance our security while severely undermining our national commitment to freedom and liberty," said Timothy H. Edgar, an ACLU legislative counsel. "The bill takes ideas rejected by Congress last session and seeks to create significant hurdles to the persecuted seeking safe haven here."

Last year, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which called for the federal government to work with states to develop workable standards for drivers' licenses and personal identification.

The NGA, NCSL and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators backed that legislation with varying degrees of support.

But in a letter sent in March to Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., in anticipation of the Senate taking up the Real ID Act, the NGA observed that the House version of the bill contains a provision that would burden states

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor