Is Real ID IDeal?

Katia Cortes

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

By May 3, 2023, U.S travelers must be Real ID compliant to board domestic flights, enter nuclear facilities, visit military bases, and gain access to certain federal facilities. The implementation of the Real ID comes eighteen years after Congress passed the Real ID Act and ten years after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an enforcement plan for compliance with Real ID standards. Although U.S travelers have a little more than a year to comply with Real ID requirements, compliance may be difficult in light of the Real ID’s history and complications.

About the Real ID  

The Real ID Act was signed into law on May 11, 2005, in an effort to accelerate safety in domestic travel after the events of September 11, 2001. Among other things concerning immigration and boarder security, the Real ID Act established minimum standards for states to comply with when issuing drivers licenses and IDs. The Act also required more proof of legal status in the U.S and identification. In order to receive certain federal funds, states must also share data with other states and the federal government concerning driver’s license information and documentation.

The Real ID’s requirements are aimed at prohibiting terrorist activity on domestic flights as it will make it nearly impossible for terrorists to gain fake documents to board flights.

Initial pushback and COVID

When the federal government began to push Real ID compliance onto states, there was a lot of pushbacks from state legislatures who were concerned with the data of their citizens being shared across the country. Citizens and legislators believed the Real ID was an excuse for the government to create a national database with personal information. As a result, several states initially passed legislation that prohibited state DMVs from enforcing the Real ID as concern for privacy data, birth certificates, social security numbers, and even biometric data could be shared across the country. One big concern was that states were now required to keep facial recognition data of everyone who sat down for a photo at the DMV, even if they were denied the Real ID. However, DHS rebutted this concern on their website assuring that there is no national database, and the federal government or other states cannot access a state’s database.

Aside from the fear surrounding the implementation of the Real ID, the COVID-19 pandemic made the initial date to comply difficult. Originally, all states had until October 2020 to be Real ID compliant and enforce the Real ID on domestic flights. However, COVID-19 resulted in unprecedented DMV closings, short staffing, and issues with compliance. As a result, the federal government pushed back the deadline to October 2021, and later to May 3, 2023 as many DMVs were still in limited operation and staffing. As of 2020, all states were Real ID compliant.


Why compliance may be difficult

Compliance with any new regulation is difficult, especially in unprecedented times. Without a Real ID, Americans will need to use a valid passport to fly domestically. This may be difficult for Americans who do not have passports and may need to take an emergency flight. Only one third of Americans report having a valid, unexpired passport. DMV wait times have also skyrocketed since they reopened.

Additionally, American’s declining trust in the government may determine who does or does not feel comfortable acquiring a Real ID. Despite the government’s efforts to rebut these beliefs, many Americans believe the Real ID is a way for the government to track individuals and create a national database. People really value their privacy and worry that the information could end up in the wrong hands or be used against them.

Lastly, there is concern that the Real ID act is giving states and DMVs the power to act as immigration enforcement agencies as the DMV will have to make judgments on a person’s legal status. This can cause fear and anxiety in immigrant communities and deter them from attempting to acquire the Real ID. Because immigration enforcement is a federal job, many are worried that states should not have this big of a role in assessing immigration status.