Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Arizona is bidding to become the first state on the southern border to introduce new secure driver licenses that would confirm the holder’s citizenship and thus be used to cross the border and prove legal eligibility for work.

In a statement Friday, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano said she hoped the move would put the state on the leading edge of a movement “to an effective permanent program that can be implemented nationwide.”

But the plans — which change the fee structure and thus need the state legislature’s approval — have provoked concern from civil liberties and pro-immigration groups, many of whom consider such proposals to be tantamount to the back-door introduction of a national ID.

The new ID will be voluntary and, as a premium service, likely will be a little more expensive than existing Arizona licenses, which cost between $10 and $25 depending on the age of the applicant. They will be available to drivers who can prove their citizenship, identity and residence in the state.

The new licenses — like those that are being tried out on the northern border by state governments in Washington and Vermont — will allow their holders to enter the United States when tighter ID rules for U.S. citizens are introduced at the border next year.

But in Arizona, according to Miss Napolitano’s statement, employers also will be able to use them to comply with tough new state laws that take effect January requiring Arizona employers to check new hires against a federal database to ensure their legal status. Offenders are subject to the suspension, or on a second offense, the revocation of their business license.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which calls the new law “draconian” and has joined a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality, was “cautiously welcoming” of the new IDs.

“This sounds like a step in the right direction,” spokeswoman Ann Seiden said. “If employers have a document that securely verifies eligibility it may soothe their fears [about the new law] a little bit.”

Another issue may come up over the technology in the new licenses, as already has happened in Washington, whose upgraded licenses have an embedded chip using radio frequency identity (RFID) technology that can be read up to 30 feet away.

Miss Napolitano said the new licenses will also be the first in the nation to comply with the requirements of the Real ID Act, under which state-issued driver’s licenses are only valid federal IDs if they incorporate security features. Real ID-compliant licenses would be compulsory for all drivers and would require proof the holder is in the country legally and are tied to state databases compatible with national ID checks.

In addition, Real ID will have the effect of preventing illegal aliens from getting driver’s licenses, which troubles some.

“From a humanitarian point of view, these individuals are going to lose the right to drive legally,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “That means the right to get to work, to go buy groceries to feed their families, to get their children to school.”

The consequences, he said, would be “egregious” and the deterrent effect unclear. “We don’t see how these dots connect. … This will not stop one individual from crossing the border.”

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