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Massachusetts is one of six states that don’t comply with the 2005 federal REAL ID Act, which toughens requirements to obtain a state driver’s license. The goal of the federal law is to discourage terrorists from using driver’s licenses, the most common form of day-to-day identification in the United States, to get on planes or into federal facilities. The Commonwealth has resisted the law , which provides strict procedures for issuing licenses, partly because of the cost and partly because of the potential implications for certain types of immigrants. But unless the law changes, Massachusetts will eventually have to comply, and the state needs a fair-minded plan for doing so.

Massachusetts has requested an extension from the federal government. But the matter came to a head last month when a Massachusetts resident was denied access to a federal building when she used her driver’s license as ID. Under the Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement schedule, the agency will soon require a REAL ID-compliant card to enter most federal buildings. As of 2016, Massachusetts licenses won’t be usable at the airport.

The law sets forth 18 criteria for compliance. One criterion involves participating in a program called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, which allows federal, state, and local benefit-issuing agencies to determine immigration and eligibility status of applicants. Also, employees issuing the licenses need special training, and compliant cards need to display a yellow star indicating Homeland Security’s approval.


A REAL ID-compliant driver’s license could hamper legitimate policy options, such as allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain the licenses they need to secure auto insurance. But other states have found a solution, which is to clearly differentiate between the two purposes of the card: as a permit to operate a motor vehicle and as a government-issued ID. These states have opted to issue a second-tier driver’s license to undocumented immigrants — a license that does not fall afoul of the federal act. Vermont, for example, has proven that issuing licenses compliant with the federal law doesn’t prevent states from granting some form of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in the interest of public safety.

But there are many other objections to the law. Privacy activists see an accumulation of personal information in one place as a Big Brother-style intrusion — and as a tempting target for identity thieves. The law unravels the old-fashioned state-by-state approach to issuing IDs. All the new information gets fed into a central database.

Yet as the US government prepares to fully enforce the law and create headaches for noncompliant states, Massachusetts needs to find a suitable solution for its residents, who need to be able to get on planes and visit federal buildings. (Only about one-third of Americans have valid passports.) The reality of REAL ID is closing in, and our state can’t put it off forever.