WASHINGTON — For now, Massachusetts faces no punishment from the federal government for issuing driver’s licenses to its residents without verifying their citizenship. That is about to change.
Starting in April, Massachusetts residents will be prevented from using their licenses to gain access to some federal buildings — unless, of course, state officials give in and quickly adopt the Homeland Security “Real ID” verification program.
If not, residents will be later barred from sensitive locations such as nuclear power plants without showing additional documentation such as a US passport. That will even be the case for visitors seeking a tour of the White House.
Then, as soon as 2016, the punishment will get more serious: Massachusetts residents will be prevented from boarding commercial aircraft if they do not provide another identity document to security screeners.
It is all part of an effort by the Department of Homeland Security to prod Massachusetts and 11 other states to follow the requirements of the 2005 law that stiffened requirements on driver’s licenses. Under the law, states must require proof that driver’s license applicants are US citizens or, if they are foreign, that they are legally in the United States. The goal is to prevent terrorists with illegal immigration status from boarding airliners.
Officials in Massachusetts, Maine, and other states have resisted the rules. They call them expensive to adopt, burdensome, and an encroachment of state’s rights. Privacy hawks also argue that increased collection of data could be a ripe target for hackers.
As a result of the controversy, Homeland Security has delayed enforcement four times.
“States issue driver’s licenses, not the federal government,” Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state, said in an interview. “They really can’t make us do it. That’s why it’s been such a disaster implementing it.”
Officials from Governor Deval Patrick’s administration did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles declined an interview. Registrar Celia J. Blue said in a statement the Registry is reviewing the issue but did not commit to following the federal law.
“We are working with [the Department of Homeland Security] to address their outstanding concerns and we appreciate the guidance and various best practices they have shared with us from other states,” Blue said.
In March 2013, state Senators Bruce E. Tarr, Robert Hedlund, Michael Knapik, and Richard Ross – all Republicans – wrote a letter to Patrick urging Massachusetts to comply with the law. Tarr said he has not yet received an “effective response” from the administration.
“I do think what will happen is that Massachusetts driver’s licenses won’t have the same stature and validity across this country as they do now,” said Tarr, the state Senate minority leader.
Homeland Security said in December, when it unveiled its latest efforts to enforce compliance, that the rules for verifying citizenship and immigration status are “measured, fair and, responsible.” They will apply to places where identification is now required to enter, for the most part, but not to such places as the Smithsonian Institution’s museums on the National Mall.
Homeland Security “will continue to support states’ efforts to enhance the security in an achievable way that will make all of our communities safer,” spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a statement.
In states following Real ID requirements, driver’s licenses feature a star.
Congress passed Real ID after the 9/11 Commission’s final report advised states to bolster their driver’s license security as a way to stop terrorism. In the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, four of the 19 hijackers used state-issued licenses to board the airplanes.
When Real ID passed, Congress set a 2008 deadline for states to comply. The repeated delays have led some critics to wonder whether the Obama administration is serious this time.
“Honestly it feels very status quo,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. Homeland Security “is not going to keep citizens off of airplanes,” he said.
The issue highlights how a patchwork of security measures remains in place across all states, despite the efforts by Congress to tighten up procedures. After Real ID became law, several states passed laws limiting or barring its implementation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But two of them – Georgia and Utah – now follow Real ID, and seven are receiving extensions to meet the law.
Meanwhile, some states, including Vermont and Delaware, are — on their own — surpassing the baseline standards the Real ID law sets by using third parties and facial recognition software to verify applicants’ identities.
“For those states lagging behind, they create a very real vulnerability from a national security standpoint,” said Andrew Meehan, policy director of Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, an advocacy group that supports Real ID.
But a key criticism of the legislation is that states are not receiving enough money to reform their licensing procedures. In 2008, Homeland Security projected that the costs for states to implement Real ID would not exceed $3.9 billion. So far, states have received $263 million in grants to help them comply.
“If we had to manually verify with issuing jurisdictions every birth certificate for every citizen of Washington, you can imagine that would be a lot of work and resources,” said Brad Benfield, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Licensing, a state that is not meeting the Real ID requirements.
At the same time as the Real ID controversy is brewing, the Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill that would allow foreign-born residents living in the country illegally to obtain Massachusetts driver’s licenses. In 2010, Patrick signaled his support for giving licenses to undocumented immigrants.
In states with Real ID, the required verification creates complications for undocumented workers, whose work authorization and green-card status can vary significantly, said Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the largest immigrant advocacy group in New England. Millona said that immigrant advocacy efforts have helped thwart the law in Massachusetts but that Real ID’s cost is ultimately the driving factor.
“It’s poorly designed and inappropriately implemented,” she said.
In Vermont, where Real ID enforcement began Jan. 1, the state is simply issuing separate licenses to immigrants who cannot prove their legal status. Although wait times in some offices are increasing with the closer scrutiny, Michael Smith, director of operations for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, said the launch has been “relatively smooth.”
Because Vermont requires residents to renew their driver’s licenses every four years anyway, the state is telling residents there is no rush to get a new one.
As Homeland Security promotes its new timetable, state officials say the issue remains unresolved.
“I’m not confident this is a drop-dead deadline,” said Maine’s Dunlap. “I can’t help but believe there will be further work on Real ID.”
Kimberly Railey can be reached at email@example.com .