Saturday, September 22, 2007

national security implications of state IDs for immigrants

Nina Bernstein of the NY Times reports on a happy development for immigrants:

New York State, home to more than 500,000 illegal immigrants, will issue driver’s licenses without regard to immigration status under a policy change announced yesterday by Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

The change rolls back rules adopted four years ago under the Pataki administration that made it difficult, if not impossible, for tens of thousands of immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses because they could not prove legal status. Under the new rules, the Department of Motor Vehicles will accept a current foreign passport as proof of identity without also requiring a valid yearlong visa or other evidence of legal immigration.

This is good news for many out-of-status immigrants who have established lives here in New York but can’t drive and have difficulty opening bank accounts, getting credit cards, or doing any number of things incidental to daily life which require a state-issued ID. The article continues:

But the new policy drew immediate fire from groups that had welcomed the Pataki administration rules as a needed crackdown on license fraud and as the kind of national security measure demanded by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Peter Gadiel, the president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, whose son died in the World Trade Center, released a scathing statement even before the official announcement yesterday.

“Governor Spitzer will demonstrate abject stupidity and breathtaking disregard for the victims of 9/11 if he hands these powerful ID’s to people who sneak across our borders,” he wrote. “Terrorists here illegally used licenses to kill my son and thousands of others in the World Trade Center; if they do it again using New York licenses issued by this governor, the blood of the victims will be on Mr. Spitzer’s hands.”

Curious on this point, I looked and found this fact sheet (pdf) from the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, a nationwide public education campaign created by the ten members of the 9/11 Commission:

What happened in the 9/11 plot:

The hijackers obtained 13 driver’s licenses (two of which were duplicates) and 21 USA or state-issued identification cards (usually used for showing residence in the U.S. or a state).

The driver’s licenses themselves were all legal, that is, they were not forged. But they were not all legally obtained. Seven hijackers used fraudulent means (false statements of residency) to acquire legitimate identifications in Virginia.

Their fraud in obtaining driver’s licenses did not arise from them being undocumented aliens. All the hijackers entered the United States with proper immigration documents, but several had committed fraudulent acts to get them.

One hijacker who obtained a driver’s license when he was in status was out of status on 9/11. Another hijacker whose documents clearly showed that he was out of status and had overstayed his 30-day visitor’s visa did not seek or obtain a driver’s license. He used his passport to prove identification and board the aircraft.

In the fact sheet, the Commission went on say that it had recommended “strong federal standards for the issuance of birth certificates and other sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses,” but pointedly

did not make any recommendations to state governments about which individuals should or should not be issued a driver’s license. . . . Specifically, we did not make any recommendation about licenses for undocumented aliens. That issue did not arise in our investigation, as all hijackers entered the United States with documentation (often fraudulent) that appeared lawful to immigration inspectors. They were therefore “legal immigrants” at the time they received their driver’s licenses.

So the 9/11 Commission disagreed with Mr. Gadiel's position. The National Immigration Law Center, an immigrants’ rights group, has this to add (from a 2005 fact sheet—pdf):

National security experts make clear that imposing immigration status–based restrictions on who can obtain a driver’s license actually undermines national security.1

a. Immigration status–based restrictions will create a larger “haystack” in which terrorists can hide. Effective counterterrorism strategy is based on sorting potential terrorists out from the general population so that security resources can be focused on this smaller pool of suspects. The fewer the people who are identified through the licensing process, the larger the population of unidentified people that law enforcement must sort through.

b. Immigration status–based restrictions will increase the incentive for noncitizens to buy fraudulent documents on the black market.

1. See statement released by the Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy on Dec. 17, 2004, at [Ed. note: here is the correct link:]

. . .

As stated in a fact sheet created by the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, which is a public education campaign created by members of the 9/11 Commission, immigration status–based driver’s license restrictions would not have prevented the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. All of the hijackers who committed the attacks were in the United States lawfully when they were issued the driver’s licenses they were found to have obtained.2

The fraud the 9/11 hijackers committed in obtaining their licenses did not arise from the fact that they were undocumented immigrants. Some of them obtained licenses by submitting false affidavits stating that they were residents of the state that issued the licenses, or on their applications they provided a hotel address as their residence address.

In fact, state driver’s license records provided critical information about where the hijackers had traveled and stayed in the U.S.

Unlike the majority of immigrants who work hard at low-wage jobs, sophisticated terrorists have the resources to travel. They aren’t deterred by lawful presence restrictions but can use their foreign passports to prove identity for almost any purpose, and they have access to technology to produce fake identity documents.

2 For a copy of the fact sheet, see

Much of the anti-immigrant position rests on purported national security grounds, but upon closer inspection, the real targets are usually low-income Latin American immigrants like this Peruvian quoted in the Times article:

One member of the group, who would identify himself only as Cesar, an immigrant from Peru, said he had been afraid of driving without authorization and had had to depend on friends to drive him to work. “Now, thank God, I won’t have this difficulty in my life,” he said.

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