WASHINGTON — Susan Podziba couldn’t enter a federal building near Washington this month because her driver’s license revealed an unacceptable home state: Massachusetts.
Bay State residents can no longer use their driver’s licenses to get inside some government agencies because the state is one of nine that have not signed on to a federal law called REAL ID. If nothing changes, they will even lose the ability to display their licenses to board a plane.
The REAL ID measure presses states to verify citizenship and update security standards when they issue licenses. Congress intended the act to prevent terrorists who arrive in the country illegally from boarding planes. But officials in Massachusetts and elsewhere have balked at a program they contend costs millions, raises privacy concerns, and infringes on states’ rights.
States face no direct penalty other than the frustration of their citizens.
Some restrictions — such as the one that kept Podziba, a public policy mediator from Brookline, out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — began in late July.
“It was bizarre, and then I really felt embarrassed,” Podziba said. “It was like wow, I am a US citizen and suddenly my Massachusetts ID isn’t good enough?”
She ended up conducting the high-level meeting in a cafeteria outside the security gate.
Governor Deval Patrick’s office referred questions to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, an agency spokeswoman, said the state has applied for an extension to give it enough time to meet the law’s requirements.
“DHS is asking the states to do something radically different with their licensing systems,” she said. “We want to make sure we do it right and do it well.”
She did not elaborate on the delay.
Massachusetts, in order to comply with the law, must meet a list of benchmarks when issuing licenses that include checking a person’s legal status, retaining images, and establishing background checks for employees with access to sensitive information. The standards aim to prevent fraud and enhance safety.
Homeland Security, which delayed enforcement of the 2005 law for years, started a gradual implementation in April. The second phase began in July. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have received extensions, and 21 are considered compliant. Three additional states haven’t made the changes but offer a special license people can display.
That leaves residents from six states unable to enter restricted parts of federal buildings without another ID, such as a passport. They are: Massachusetts, Maine, Oklahoma, Alaska, Arizona, and Louisiana.
Since the latest phase took effect July 21, it remains unclear how many people the change has affected or how many federal facilities are strictly enforcing it. The law varies in its effect; tourists may still go to Smithsonian museums without ID and defendants can attend court proceedings.
‘It was like wow, I am a US citizen and suddenly my Massachusetts ID isn’t good enough?’
Unless the state participates in the law, Massachusetts residents without other identification will find themselves banned from White House tours next year and commercial airplanes as soon as 2016.
“It’s an entirely foreseeable result of Massachusetts’ failure to comply with a federal law,” said Bruce Tarr, the state Senate minority leader.
Tarr, a Republican, said he received “very little response” from the Democratic Patrick administration. “The only thing you could speculate is that somehow compliance with REAL ID would thwart the administration’s attempt to give driver’s licenses to those who aren’t here legally.”
The state’s Joint Committee on Transportation rejected a bill in June that would have granted driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. Patrick supports the issue on grounds that it increases the state’s ability to know the background of drivers, but opponents consider it a dangerous benefit for lawbreakers.
The 2005 federal law stems from recommendations by the 9/11 Commission. Several of the hijackers who commandeered planes in the attack used driver’s licenses to board.
Critics fault the federal government for creating a costly program that doesn’t achieve much.
“For any American citizen, they should find this whole program completely laughable and ridiculous,” Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said.
Even if it did make sense, he said, the state would need to spend millions on new technology and background checks for certain employees. The federal agency unveiled its enforcement plan in December, five years after the original deadline.
“The whole thing has been kind of a bit of a farce,” Dunlap said. “I don’t hold out an awful lot of confidence it will be implemented in a timely way and have any effect on border security or national security.”
Maine officials now advise residents to bring a passport when they visit federal buildings.
A NOAA spokesperson confirmed the agency couldn’t let Podziba into the building because Massachusetts does not comply with the law. Federal buildings affected, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Patent and Trademark Office, have some leeway in how they enforce standards.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said the agency’s slow rollout allows the changes to occur in a “measured, fair, responsible, and achievable way.”
States must show progress or justify a delay to receive the latest extension.
Proponents warn that states failing to comply threaten the entire system.
Identity verification standards are “extremely common sense,” said Andrew Meehan, policy director of Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, a Washington-based nonprofit. “For states to not be doing them really puts residents [and] driver’s license and ID card holders at risk.”
Civil rights groups worry about the opposite: requirements that punish those without other identification, such as senior citizens or the poor.
“Not all of us have passports,” said Tanya Broder, senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy organization based in Los Angeles.
Podziba, whose work has included a project on secure driver’s licenses, just wished someone had informed her about the issue.
“I support security, but Massachusetts, to me, is on top of public policy issues and requirements,” she said. “It should be cleared up.”