Massachusetts Bill Offers Two-Tiered Driver’s License Identification System

December 15, 2015

Among the many issues that Massachusetts lawmakers may deal with after returning from recess in January is whether to bring the state into compliance with REAL ID, a federal program that sets new requirements for driver’s licenses and other identification cards.

In October, Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill that would create a two-tiered system for the issuance of driver’s licenses by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Residents who currently drive in the state could choose between applying for a new license that meets REAL ID standards, including documented proof that they are U.S. citizens or have lawful permanent or temporary residency status.

The bill would also give current drivers the option of continuing to hold a valid Massachusetts driver’s license, but one that is not compliant with REAL ID. As such, it could not be used to enter secure federal facilities or to board domestic flights when the new rules are enforced at U.S. airports, likely in 2020.

Congress approved the REAL ID law in 2005 after the 9/11 Commission recommended more secure forms of personal identification. Enforcement has been slow, and concerns have been raised about the program by immigrant advocacy groups among others.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in response to Baker’s filing of the bill, recently granted Massachusetts a second extension until October 2016 to implement REAL ID. But state officials note future extensions are unlikely without strong signals that the state is ready to adopt the standards.

“This legislation is required for (Massachusetts) to continue to be able to offer our customers a card that is acceptable as federal identification,” said Erin Deveney, the RMV’s interim registrar, in testimony earlier this month before a legislative committee studying the bill.

REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses would be marked with a white star inside a yellow circle, signifying it can be used for federal identification purposes. But Deveney said the bill envisions that some Massachusetts residents would prefer not to have the burden of applying for a REAL ID-compliant license – a process that, among other things, requires a trip to an RMV office – and would be satisfied to simply renew their ordinary driver’s license.

“Under a REAL ID only model, these customers would all be required to visit a branch and produce their identity documents as if they were first-time customers,” said Deveney.

People with no plans to visit secure federal facilities or take commercial flights, or those who have other forms of identification such as U.S. passports that would allow them to fly, might opt for the standard license, Deveney said. The two-tiered system could also have the effect of reducing wait times at RMV branches, she added.

Amy Grunder, director of legislative affairs for the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, told lawmakers that certain people could be excluded from getting identification though they are in the country legally, including refugees and those holding special visas, such as victims of domestic violence or human trafficking.

While Baker’s bill would allow for the two-tiered system, critics argued that even the requirements for an ordinary driver’s license would go too far by demanding the more restrictive federal language for lawful residency.

“This harmful restriction is not only unnecessary, it’s also discriminatory,” said Grunder.

Of states that have made decisions so far, about a dozen have passed laws that require only REAL ID-compliant licenses, and about a dozen others have adopted duel systems similar to what Baker has proposed.

The Transportation Committee is likely to make a recommendation on the bill early next year. Formal legislative sessions are scheduled to run until July 31.

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