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Ridge Backs National Standards For ID

UPI | January 31 2005

Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has come out in support of national standards for driver's licenses, as proposed in several bills being pushed by Republicans in Congress.

He also promised to put in place some structural changes to his department that would leave it in better shape for his successor after he leaves next week, but rejected other suggested reforms.

Ridge said he supported proposals for "some internal changes that will make us more effective," including the establishment of an office charged with developing the department's long term strategic planning and policy.

The driver's license is "the most standard form of ID" across the country, Ridge said, so it made sense to "ask the states to buy into a baseline set of national standards."

"As a governor, I would not have felt put upon by that," Ridge, who was governor of Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2001, said in a conference call Friday.

Two bills introduced in the House, and one planned for the Senate, address the issue, which was highlighted by the Sept. 11 commission in its report last year.

At present, states, through legislation or policy, can authorize motor vehicle administrators to issue licenses to whomever they wish, verifying the applicant's identity with whatever documents they decide to require.

The proposals before Congress wouldn't change that, but they would establish minimum standards that states would have to meet if their licenses were to be acceptable as identity documents to the federal government -- for instance to board airplanes or get access to court buildings.

And the standards would include the controversial legal presence requirement -- those applying for a license would have to prove either they were citizens or that they were lawfully in the United States. For non-citizen holders of temporary visas, the license issued would expire on the same date the visa did.

Legal presence requirements have been slowly spreading since Sept. 11, 2001. All 19 of the suicide hijackers who struck that day had been able to acquire some form of license or state identification, including those who had overstayed or otherwise violated the terms of their visas.

All but 10 states have some form of the requirement, according to the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, a New York-based advocacy group.

But the bills promote uniform national standards, and the free exchange of information among state vehicle licensing databases and between them and the federal government. Opponents say that is the introduction of a national ID card.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said his bill -- called the Real ID Act -- "does comport with the principles of federalism" and does not impinge on states' rights.

Under his law, "The states are free to issue driver's licenses and ID cards to whomever they wish to issue them, but if they wish to use the ID for federal purposes, then it does have to meet certain standards, including the standard of legal presence in the United States," he told reporters on Capitol Hill last week.

He said companion legislation would be introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

Sensenbrenner's proposals proved controversial when they were introduced as part of the Sept. 11 intelligence reform bill last year. They aroused fierce opposition from a broad coalition stretching from immigrants' rights advocates to libertarian conservatives.

Even those who issue licenses have said they are uneasy about a new role as gatekeepers to a national ID system for citizens and legal aliens only, especially given the complexities of immigration law.

"Our initials are D-M-V, not I-N-S," American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators' spokesman Jason King told United Press International last year -- referring to the acronyms of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

"We are the experts in driver licensing, not immigration," King said.

Moreover, immigrants' rights advocates argue that by excluding undocumented migrants from the vehicle and driver-licensing system, legal presence requirements make the roads less safe even as they make the identity system more secure.

Tennessee has introduced legislation it believes squares that circle.

Since last July 1 last, the state has issued so-called driver certificates to anyone unable to prove legal presence, provided they can show they live in the state and can pass the driving test. The documents resemble drivers' licenses but are stamped "Not for identification" at the top.

"It says we know you can drive, but we can't guarantee we know exactly who you are," said Maj. Gen. Jerry Humble, homeland security adviser to Gov. Phil Bredesen.

But the Sensenbrenner bill also contains a series of provisions aimed at tightening asylum laws and making it easier to deport people suspected of links to terrorism. These two sets of provisions proved also controversial when they were introduced last year.

Eventually, all three sets of proposals were stripped out of the Sept. 11 bill before it was passed.

Aware that controversy over the immigration and asylum elements of the Real ID bill might complicate its passage, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee has introduced stand-alone legislation on drivers' licenses.

"I think it's ... important for members to have the chance to cast separate votes on separate issues," said Davis introducing his bill last week.

"It's a politically smart move," said a senior GOP congressional aide. "By separating out the issues you make it impossible for the Dems to hide behind the immigration stuff."

Ridge said his successor would inherit a department that had made the United States "a lot stronger and better country," though he acknowledged that "there was much more work that needs to be done."

He said that when the department was set up, "We tried to keep the staffing levels low at headquarters."

As a result, there was no department-wide policy office under a senior official and a staff of about a half dozen in the secretary's office. "We dealt with (policy issues) on an ad hoc basis," said Ridge.

But observers say that as a result of this Ridge became too taken up with the daily crises and threats -- "wrestling the alligators," as one state official put it -- and didn't spend enough time "looking down the river, to see what's coming next and get ready."

In effect, say department officials, this has left much of the heavy lifting to the small policy office in the Border and Transportation Security directorate.

With fewer than 30 staff members, that office has taken the lead in some of the most challenging issues the department has tackled, like the negotiations with the European Union over the availability of passenger data; and in some of the trickiest inter-agency tussles, such as the development of the biometric border system called US-VISIT.

Despite these successes, the absence of a department-wide operation under a senior official was criticized by a series of experts at a Senate hearing last week. Department officials privately concede that there were areas of the department's activities -- particularly its relationship and work with U.S. intelligence agencies -- where almost no policy work has been done.

They also note that in some areas, different points of view from with the department itself were hard to reconcile.

"On a lot of immigration issues, for instance, you have different equities from the enforcement side and the (Citizenship and Immigration Services office) side," said one official. "There wasn't really a good process to resolve those kinds of disputes, except to take them to the secretary every time and obviously you can't do that."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the newly empowered oversight Committee for Homeland Security said the current set up had had left the department without an effective mechanism for developing either short or long term strategic policy.

"I agree," Ridge said Friday.

Department officials told UPI that the new office would be announced within a week or so, and would be headed by a senior official, possibly an undersecretary.

One other person familiar with the administration's thinking on the issue said that Assistant Secretary Stewart Verdery, who runs the Border and Transportation Security directorate's policy office, would likely be promoted to run the new operation.