State needs to get serious about enhanced IDs

A driver heads toward the U.S. at the border crossing with Canada in Blaine. Rules regarding ID needed to enter the U.S. have ratcheted up since 9/11.
A driver heads toward the U.S. at the border crossing with Canada in Blaine. Rules regarding ID needed to enter the U.S. have ratcheted up since 9/11. Associated Press file, 2009

Is the Department of Homeland Security bluffing when it says it will stop accepting Washington driver’s licenses as valid IDs for federal purposes sometime next year?

Maybe, but let’s not find out. State lawmakers should make progress complying with federal law, lest they risk the wrath of citizens turned away from flying commercial airlines or gaining access to military bases.

Washington is one of many states not in compliance with the federal REAL ID Act, which was passed in 2005 after a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission. After reviewing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the commission concluded that states’ photo ID cards made it too easy for terrorists and undocumented people to get fake IDs.

Since then, the DHS has been slowly ratcheting up enforcement of the act. It now restricts access to some federal facilities to people who don’t have so-called “enhanced ID” cards that require proof of legal residency. It has given enforcement extensions to states that it deems to be making good-faith progress, but this week announced that Washington and New Mexico will not get another one after a three-month grace period expires Jan. 10, 2016.

They are the only two states that do not require proof of legal residence before issuing driver’s licenses or ID cards. In fact, Washington forbids even asking applicants whether they are legal residents.

As far as the feds are concerned, Washington has made too little progress toward enhanced IDs. It had been granted an earlier extension only because state officials were proposing a plan to the Legislature that would create a two-tiered system like one in other states: an enhanced ID for most people and a standard license for those who either can’t prove legal residence or who don’t want to have to prove it to federal authorities. That proposal went nowhere in the last session.

Washington state makes enhanced ID available to state residents as an option, but doesn’t require it. Although more than 500,000 Washington residents have obtained enhanced licenses or ID, millions haven’t. Presumably many of those people have a passport, which is an alternative to enhanced ID. Even so, there are a lot of people in this state who could be out of luck if they want to travel by air next year.

That is, if the DHS is serious about enforcing its deadline. It says it will announce by the end of this year the real date that travelers will have to have enhanced ID in order to fly commercially.

State lawmakers must start taking this issue seriously. The two-tiered system is working elsewhere, and it could work here. It would still give people who are not legal residents the benefit of ID for such purposes as driving and banking, but not for purposes requiring federally approved ID, such as flying and gaining access to secure federal facilities.

If lawmakers created such a system here, the DHS should give the state time to phase it in. That way residents could get enhanced ID when it came time to renew their licenses. Otherwise, the rush to apply for the new ID could turn into a nasty stampede.