JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill has our driver's license story.
DMV WORKER: Are you registered?
GWEN IFILL: A trip to the state department of motor vehicles has been a rite of passage for drivers as long as there have been cars. And the states have been the ones to make the rules over who gets to drive. Eleven states allow non-citizens without visas to get a license.
But both Houses of Congress have now voted to change that. Negotiators are working out the details of a plan to set strict national standards for licenses that would deny the permits to some non-citizens. The new requirements were attached to a spending bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would force states to require proof of citizenship or legal presence, a bona fide U.S. address, and a Social Security number. Officials issuing the licenses would also be required to check the legal status of non-citizens against a national immigration database, save copies of any documents provided, and store a digital photograph of each applicant.
The move to tighten driver's license standards came after the 9/11 Commission found that all 19 hijackers cleared airport security using valid state- issued licenses. Supporters of the new law argue it would help curb illegal immigration, while privacy advocates say a driver's license would become a national identity card, cost state governments too much, and lead to increased identity theft.
GWEN IFILL: House and Senate negotiators reached agreement this afternoon on the military spending bill that includes the driver's license proposal. The House is scheduled to vote on final passage this Thursday; the Senate, next week. We pick up the debate now with Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He supports the new legislation; and Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She opposes it. Mark Krikorian, what was broken here that needed to be fixed?
MARK KRIKORIAN: Well, whenever you cash a check or board a plane, you need to have government-issued photo ID, and there's a good reason for that. What was broken is that instead of a national standard or at least a set of national rules, every state got to set their own rules for issuing driver's licenses. And as the introduction showed, a number of states give them to illegal immigrants. There's a great deal of variation and too much variation if our security is going to depend on who gets driver's licenses and whether they're lawfully in the United States or not. So, some federal minimum standards that would allow the states to keep issuing licenses-- they're not going to be taken over by the federal government, there's just going to be some basic rules that states have to follow-- is common sense.
GWEN IFILL: Common sense, Jeanne Butterfield?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: I don't think so, Gwen. I think it's really a dangerous detour away from real security and away from the thoughtful debate, discussion we need to be having about real immigration reform. This new provision will impose a huge new unfunded mandate on our states and make DMV's into immigration enforcers, in essence. The National Council of State Legislatures points out that the verification requirements will require the states to in effect reissue millions of birth certificates for each and every one of us. This doesn't just apply to immigrants. It's going to lead to unsafe highways, to driving people who are here undocumented further underground rather than bringing them out, licensing them, putting them in law enforcement databases so we know who they are. I think it's a prescription for disaster, for failure.
GWEN IFILL: Let's take some of those criticisms one at a time. Just how expensive would this be?
MARK KRIKORIAN: Well, the opponents of it have estimated $500-$600 billion to enact. In fact the congressional analysts have estimated something like a total of $100 million in costs --
GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that number?
MARK KRIKORIAN: -- for the states to enact this and, you know, frankly let me say even if it were twice that it would be a bargain because this is something that has to be done if we're going to have a meaningful system of identification in this nation and it costs money to do that.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about Mr. Krikorian's point about the patchwork system. You have got 50 states, most of them with different rules, different standards. Why not consolidate that?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Well, I think the 9/11 Commission which debated and looked at this issue for months and months and proposed a series of measures that were finally enacted last December in the 9/11 legislation, they proposed a series of measures that just now have been starting to be worked on by state legislators and Department of Transportation to make more uniform standards, to deal with driver's licenses in ways that will make them less fraud susceptible, more tamper proof, more counterfeit proof.
But it was a negotiated process, sitting down with the states and saying how can we come to more uniform standards in a way that doesn't simply impose billion-dollar mandates back on the states and give them literally impossible tasks? This measure repeals the 9/11 Commission legislation. The ink is barely dry on that. Let's give that a chance to work. Let's do this in a considered manner.
GWEN IFILL: And, in fact, what they agreed on today is an attachment to a spending bill for Afghanistan and Iraq. Why do it that way, why not do it in a way in which it was debated on its own merits?
MARK KRIKORIAN: Well, last year in fact the House enacted these same changes and these are in fact derived from the 9/11 Commission's reports which called for uniform standards for driver's licenses, but in the tug of war between the House and the Senate over the so-called intelligence bill they were dropped out. The promise was given to the House that they would be added to the next must-pass piece of legislation. And, frankly, it's not just a spending bill. This is a security spending bill. And these driver's license measures are security-related measures so it's actually perfectly germane.
GWEN IFILL: What do you say to states who say I can't afford to make the kinds of changes the federal government is imposing on me?
MARK KRIKORIAN: I think constructive criticisms like that have a place. And Washington needs to assess whether it ought to be making grants to help the states comply with these standards. I'm okay with that. That's just common sense. But the fact is that for the most part that's a pretext, to oppose any application of uniform standards. This is something we've been talking about since 1981. And it keeps getting enacted or proposed and then killed. It's about time we did this.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the practical effect. Who is actually affected by this? Are the only people who have to worry about the effects of this law are people who are undocumented, illegal aliens, immigrants? Or would you and I who are trying to go and renew our driver's license be affected by it?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Exactly. All of us will be affected by this. As Mark says it really is a surreptitious way to try to enact a national ID card. If we're going to do that, let's have that debate up front on its merits,
GWEN IFILL: What's wrong with a national ID card?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Well, we don't make driver's licenses, motor vehicle departments into national ID-card issuers. I think we have to look at what is in our national interest; we have to separate our immigration enforcement and regulation issues from that question of motor vehicles, driver's licenses and national ID's, and we have to have both debates on their merit. In order to secure the border, we need comprehensive immigration reform. And what this real ID-act does in addition to the driver's licenses is pile on new restrictions on asylum, court-stripping, guilt by association, and rescinding or by-passing all the laws that would govern in order for the U.S. to extend fencing along the southern borders. So again these are controversial, complicated issues. We need to have the debate in the light of day, not behind closed conference doors.
MARK KRIKORIAN: If I could get back to the national ID concept. The choice is not between a national ID card and some nirvana where nobody knows your name. The choice is a centralized national ID card or improving the system we have, which is a decentralized system that the states run but the federal government sets minimum standards. We have a national ID system. The question is, is it going to be run well or is it going to be run poorly? It's now run poorly. And it needs to be improved. This is a common sense measure that when you ask people who walk on the street, should illegal immigrants have driver's licenses, they don't even understand why that's possible.
GWEN IFILL: Assuming that this is legislation which is aimed at security issues, as you say, as well as at immigration problems or loopholes in immigration, would the bill as it is now being contemplated for final passage in Congress, would it have stopped the 19 hijackers on 9/11?
MARK KRIKORIAN: It would have in fact prevented several of them from getting ID's. Two of them got state driver's licenses or non-driver ID's from DMV's after....
GWEN IFILL: But were they not legal?
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: They were all legal.
MARK KRIKORIAN: Excuse me. After their visas expired they became illegal aliens. Two of them got driver's licenses after that process. And one of the important provisions of this law is requiring driver's licenses for temporary visitors -- students and what have you -- to expire when their permission to be here expires. And that's what would have prevented at least two of the 9/11 hijackers from boarding the planes.
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: I think Mark is illustrating the opposite of his own point which is if people in legal status can get driver's licenses and we have them in the database, what we're really talking about for 9/11 is a failure of intelligence, a failure of coordination of those databases, a failure to document what the expiration was, et cetera. All of those hijackers could have gotten driver's licenses under the provisions of real ID, so it is a ruse to say it's a public safety and security measure.
GWEN IFILL: Let me connect this for a minute to something else the president has said he's in favor of, which is the guest worker provision which allows people to come temporarily to work. Would this... denying those same guest workers the ability to drives to their jobs, would that be in conflict?
MARK KRIKORIAN: If the president got his way, his proposal is an amnesty for the illegal immigrants who are here. In other words they would be relabeled as temporary workers at which point they would be able to get driver's licenses.
GWEN IFILL: As a temporary worker they would be able to get a license?
MARK KRIKORIAN: Sure. That's the whole point; under this legislation a temporary worker or a foreign student would be able to get a license. It's just that it would have to be -- the expiration date would have to be set to when his permission to be here expires.
GWEN IFILL: The issue is that they're documented rather than undocumented workers.
MARK KRIKORIAN: Well, no that's a different question as far as whether we're going to import documented or undocumented workers. I'm talking about the security aspect of these licenses. And the point that Jeanne made about this measure forcing illegals further into the shadows rather than letting them come out of the shadows is sort of the point. In other words, the opponents of this driver's license measure want to use driver's licenses as a way of amnesty, sort of a de facto amnesty, because once you have a real driver's license you're not really undocumented; you become documented.
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Driver's licenses give people no legal immigration status. They protect us on our highways by making sure people are licensed and able to drive and can get insurance. So in that way they contribute to public safety. But President Bush is speaking to a very real issue and a very real problem. And as he puts it, we need to reform our laws so that willing employers who need workers and willing workers who need jobs can be matched up and allowed to do that match in a legal way. If we keep the laws on our books such that there is no legal way to do that, we are creating law-breakers. We are creating undocumented people. And we are operating contrary to our own economic interests.
GWEN IFILL: Would this law encourage people not to get a driver's license and simply to drive unlicensed?
MARK KRIKORIAN: Well that's the point is to make it more difficult to get a driver's license. And the reason that's important is not just the driver issue. It's that the driver's license is your entree, your pass into normal life in American society. And the idea that giving somebody a driver's license who can't afford insurance anyway because he's poor and who comes from a country where it's not... where driver's license rules are very loose, the idea that that person is then going to become a sort of normal middle class driver who is going to get insurance and all of this is kind of silly really.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Krikorian, I gave you the first word. Ms. Butterfield, I'll give you the last.
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Our immigration laws are broken. The real ID is a bad idea. It is not the way to secure our borders or to reform our immigration laws. We need a comprehensive approach such as President Bush has started to outline. We need a full and open and fair debate in the halls of Congress and amongst the American public because we can solve this problem. We can make our nation more secure.
GWEN IFILL: Jeanne Butterfield and Mark Krikorian, thank you both very much.
MARK KRIKORIAN: Thank you.
JEANNE BUTTERFIELD: Thank you, Gwen.