Real Injustice

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Real Injustice

Newspaper editorial

By: The Washington Post

Date: March 18, 2006

Source: "Real Injustice." Washington Post, (March 18, 2006), A20.

About the Author: Founded in 1877, The Washington Post is located in the nation's capital and is famed for its reporting on U.S. political issues.


In an effort to boost national security, Congress passed the Real ID Act. Designed to stop terrorists from moving easily around the United States, the legislation is projected to have the unintended consequence of keeping law-abiding would-be immigrants out of the country as well.

The Real ID Act came about in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist acts. The 9/11 Commission noted that all but one of hijackers had obtained some form of U.S. identification document, some fraudulently. The documents made it easier for the hijackers to board airplanes, rent cars, and carry out other activities as part of their plot. As a result, the commission recommended that the federal government should set standards for birth certificates, driver's licenses, and other identification materials.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act, signed into law in December 2004, addressed the issue of identification security. It created a collaborative process between federal officials, governors, state legislators, and motor vehicle administrators for developing minimum standards for drivers' licenses and avoided the creation of a national ID. In March 2005, Real ID supporters attached their measure to an emergency spending bill to fund tsunami relief efforts and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the bill passed through without much discussion and the ID committee was disbanded. The new law placed full responsibility upon the states to develop drivers' licenses that contain machine-readable technology and are valid for eight years. The new licenses must be in place by May 2008, with minimal federal financial assistance provided for development and implementation. The Real ID law has since come under attack from a range of groups, including advocates for immigrants.


WHEN CONGRESS passed the Real ID Act last year, it presumably did not intend to prevent human rights victims all over the world from entering the United States. Its goal was to keep terrorists and those who support them from resettling in the United States as refugees. The legislative language, however, was irresponsibly broad; its effects have been cruel to people already oppressed by vile regimes and terrorist groups. The law needs to be changed.

Terrorists were excluded from the United States even before the Real ID Act, but the law made substantial changes to keep out donors to terrorist groups or others who provide them "material support." The trouble is that, because of the new law and its interaction with existing provisions, the legal definitions of terrorism, terrorist organizations and material support are so broad that they include countless people who deserve the United States' protection, not exclusion.

The law bars associates of any group that contains "two or more individuals, whether organized or not, [which] engages in, or has a subgroup which engages in" activities as general as using an "explosive, firearm or other weapon or dangerous device." The law contains no exceptions for people who are forced to support a group, or for children, or for tiny contributions, or for contributions that took place decades ago. It does not make any distinction between an al-Qaeda member and an armed combatant against a murderous regime. While the government has waiver authority in some cases, it has not yet used this power.

The results are terrible. According to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and to officials and academics who have looked at the issue, here are some people who may be barred from entry to the United States: Colombians who were forced to help the leftist insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; thousands of Karen and Chin nationals who suffered brutal repression at the hands of the Burmese military junta; Liberian, Somali and Vietnamese Montagnard victims of terrorism and repression; and some dissident Cubans who aided anti-Castro forces in the 1960s. The administration recently acknowledged in one asylum proceeding that those who fought with or aided the Northern Alliance against the Taliban or who supported the African National Congress against South Africa's apartheid government would be excluded, too.

A spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who championed the Real ID Act, says the law's waiver authority gives the government the flexibility it needs to deal with such cases. And the problem could be alleviated if the administration would use that authority aggressively. But that would address only some of the cases, and only by having the government forgiving "terrorism" on the part of refugees whom it should not be labeling terrorists in the first place. This problem can be solved only by Congress. If this mess is not what Mr. Sensenbrenner had in mind, he ought to do something to clean it up.


Critics of the Real ID Act argue that it is both unnecessary and impossible to provide more than 200 million Americans with new, standardized, electronically readable ID materials within only a few years. In 2006, the National Governor Association, National Conference of State Legislators, and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators declared the act requirements to be unworkable. Instead, the groups suggested, the federal government should decide which states have the best systems for document verification and license requirements and help other states adopt those practices.

Several states are considering ways to opt out of Real ID. Federal officials have responded to this threat by warning that identification issued in states that do not comply with the law will not be accepted to board airplanes or enter federal buildings. No state and no federal officials are discussing ways to modify the legislation to help victims of human rights abuses.



Garfinkel, Simson. Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the Twenty-First Century. Sebastopol, CA: O'reilly Media, 2001.

Harper, Jim. Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2006.

O'Harrow, Robert. No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society. New York: Free Press, 2005.