Maine stings from a slap on the wrist

 Real ID
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 9, 2008
tji_RealID12inside

Like a rebellious older sibling, Maine was the first state to pass a resolution rejecting "Real ID" — the federal government’s proposed standardized ID-card system — in January 2007, and followed up five months later with a law preventing the state from participating. Now, it seems that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is trying to make an example of Maine to punish us for stepping out of line.

After DHS granted Real ID extensions to 49 states, the District of Columbia, and all five US territories, Maine was the sole standout as recently as last week. As a result, Mainers were in danger of losing their ability to board airplanes or enter federal buildings with state-issued driver’s licenses. Had DHS not issued an extension, as it did last Wednesday, Maine IDs would have been inadmissible as federal identification starting on May 11.

To get the extension, Democratic Governor John Baldacci had to agree to a set of modifications to the state’s identification system — and they illustrate the extent to which Real ID has become an immigration issue more than a security measure. First, Maine will stop issuing licenses to anyone who cannot prove citizenship or legal-resident status (Maine was one of only a handful of states which didn't ask for proof). In addition, the state will begin taking photos of license applicants — whether or not they end up getting licenses; will use the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program to check non-citizen documents; will synchronize licenses to expire when legal status does; and will take steps to ensure that people don’t have more than one state-issued identification card. On Monday, Baldacci proposed legislation seeking to address the first concern: requiring checks on legal status for license applicants.

The Maine Civil Liberties Union — which was prepared to buy plane tickets, have members try to board planes using their Maine IDs on May 12, and take the case to court if they were turned away — is disappointed that Baldacci acquiesced to the DHS demands.

The proposed modifications are costly and unfair, says MCLU executive director Shenna Bellows, and they reflect a desire to shove immigration issues to the forefront of Maine’s political debate.

The “Department of Homeland Security is playing election-year politics, trying to force Mainers to adopt a host of anti-privacy measures that DHS has not required of every other state in the country,” she said in a press release.

The MCLU, along with a coalition of immigration organizations in the state, claims that Maine is being held to a stricter standard than other states that don’t require license applicants to prove legal status.

DHS wants to “punish Maine for being first,” Bellows says in an interview, referring to Maine’s bushwhacking response to Real ID (since last January, at least 15 other states have passed legislation opposing Real ID). “DHS wants to ram Real ID down our throats,” she says.

But Amy Kudwa, a DHS spokeswoman, denies that castigation is a motive. Some states indicated full intention to comply with Real ID, she says, while Maine specifically indicated its refusal to fulfill one of the “four key pillars” of the Real ID legislation (legal-status verification).

“It’s not that the standards were different,” Kudwa says. “It was the intent to implement those measures.”

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