Md. driver's licenses fall short

Why not bring Maryland driver's licenses into full compliance with federal law?

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration recently announced a new design for its driver's license ("Maryland flag featured on new driver's license, ID cards," May 9). The new license is state of the art, containing the latest in anti-counterfeiting technology. However, the new design may prevent Marylanders from boarding airplanes unless changes are made to meet the requirements of the federal REAL ID Act.

The federal REAL ID Act is a 2005 anti-terrorism law that prohibits federal agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, from accepting driver's licenses that do not meet certain standards set by the Department of Homeland Security. -The purpose of the REAL ID standards is to prevent a criminal from fraudulently obtaining a driver's license. The effective penalty is that TSA will refuse to accept driver's licenses from states that do not meet the standards.

For the most part, Maryland is a REAL ID state. Under the leadership of John Kuo and now Christine Nizer, the MVA has become a leader in driver's license fraud prevention. However, in 2013, Maryland enacted the Maryland Highway Safety Act which allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, joining nearly a dozen other states with similar laws. Because Maryland is issuing driver's licenses to those applicants without an immigration check, the licenses fall under the noncompliant category under the REAL ID Act. REAL ID allows states to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. But in order for a state to meet the REAL ID standards, the noncompliant license must do two things. It must be physically different from the standard license with a different color or orientation and it must state on its face, "not for federal official purposes."

The Maryland Highway Safety Act did, in fact, require that the noncompliant licenses "clearly state on its face and in its machine-readable zone that it is not acceptable by federal agencies for official purposes," and "have a unique design or color indicator that clearly distinguishes it from [other driver's licenses and identification cards]." However, when the license was issued, it was not physically different, potentially in violation of Maryland's own law. One explanation for that could be that the MVA's procurement rules would have made it costly.

But now that the new licenses are out, it's clear that the MVA won't offer a noncompliant license for undocumented immigrants that is physically different any time soon. But what does this mean for Marylanders? Earlier this year, DHS announced that TSA would not accept driver's licenses from states that do not meet the REAL ID standards for the purpose of boarding an airplane starting in 2018. That's the rub. All of the state's licenses would be included in that prohibition, meaning that the physical design of the licenses for undocumented immigrants could effectively determine Maryland's REAL ID fate.

Maryland has been a "fully compliant" REAL ID state since 2012. However, much has happened since then. The Maryland Highway Safety Act passed, DHS announced how REAL ID would be enforced, and recently, DHS started the process for auditing the state's' compliance, required by the REAL ID Act every three years.

The Maryland noncompliant license design could pose problems if the state is audited by DHS. However, many questions remain. Will the next president enforce REAL ID at the airports? How aggressive will DHS be in auditing the state's compliance with the REAL ID Act? The state has made a gamble, and if Maryland does lose its full compliance determination, the cost will be felt by Marylanders who will likely have to obtain a passport to board airplanes and enter federal buildings and military installations. It doesn't seem worth the risk, and the Maryland legislature should exercise some oversight if for no other reason than the MVA does not seem to be following the full letter of the law.

Andrew Meehan, Washington, D.C.

The writer is policy director of Keeping IDentities Safe.

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