National ID: Fear Meets Fairness

Nicholas Iaquinto

Nicholas Iaquinto was previously the Communications Coordinator / Web Developer at AICGS.

In a somewhat overlooked decision of the Supreme Court, the key provision of Arizona state’s immigration law is ruled constitutional. Giving rise to calls for and against this “your papers, please” law, this decision reopens a longstanding debate in American politics. Since the country’s founding, Americans have greatly feared the potential tyranny of identity documentation, particularly the “national ID card.” Nightmares of discrimination, civil liberties infringement, privacy violations, or even institutionalized racism haunt any claims to the benefits of such a program; some critics even go so far as to reference Nazi genocide. Meanwhile, and despite these fears, experts laud the potential benefits and cite the overwhelming presence of these laws in Europe and other industrialized states. Recurring nearly cyclically in the political rhetoric, these proposals are boasted as solutions to a wide range of issues, most recently illegal immigration and voter fraud. However, the taboo ingrained in American memory has crippled these proposals or silenced them outright. In this sense, this post considers the potential benefits and applications of a national ID card, the arguments against them, and various successes and failures to implement identification legislation in the United States. Tying this collection together, a comparison of this debate to the situation of U.S. partners across the Atlantic will elucidate the stark choice facing policymakers and all Americans.

First, proponents of a national ID have proposed the system as a preventative measure or even solution to a wide list of social, economic, and security challenges:

Illegal immigration: Remaining in the current public discourse since a number of states proposed laws to limit immigration, this argument asserts that a mandated national ID with a requirement for employers to verify citizenship of legal residence would deny illegal immigrants the economic opportunities that drive them to immigrate.

 Voter fraud: Countering the recent argument that voter ID laws curtain civil liberties by disproportionately disenfranchising the poor, elderly, young, African-American, and Latino populations, a mandated national ID would mean that every citizen would not be hindered from voting. Furthermore, if a national database were to be created, then problems with ineligible voter registration or persons on the voter roll would be quickly resolvable (see, for example, Florida’s recent voter purge victory over the U.S. Department of Justice).

 Terrorism: Recommended directly by the Markel Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age and in part by the 9/11 Commission, this proposal of a national ID or at a minimum enhance existing systems would be intended to quickly and efficiently identify passengers on major forms of transportation, most notably airline travel. Therefore, if linked into existing databases, such as the purported FBI “no fly list” and CIA’s tracking of known terrorists, this system would allow federal agents to more efficiently increase and target security.

Travel within the Northwest Hemisphere: Similar to the passport card or enhanced driver’s license, a national ID could serve as an alternative to a passport if traveling to and from regional countries, including Mexico, Canada, and a number of Caribbean nations. This option would save large numbers of Americans from buying more expensive passport books if they only intend to travel within the hemisphere.

Meanwhile, proponents concurrently adopt a number of arguments in support beyond its applicability.

 Decreased Identity Theft: Touting technology that embeds a chip with biometric data, this proposal asserts that a national ID would in fact decrease identity theft in numerous forms. For example, experts assert that a national ID would be far superior to the widely criticized and ineffective E-Verify system. Employers would be responsible for checking biometric data against the real person to ensure legal immigration status. Furthermore, embedding biometric information could mean that there may be no need for a national database.

Potentially More Cost Effective: Although there would be a very high initial investment cost and the continuing cost of issuing, re-issuing, or renewing a national ID card, these costs must be considered in the context of the inefficiency and excess of multiple identification cards. From more widespread documents, such as driver’s licenses/permits, Medicare cards, and Social Security cards, and various identification cards for federal, state, local, and military employees, to more unique government documents, such as enhanced driver’s licenses, fishing and hunting licenses, and others, the sky is the limit on integrating identification documents. With more systems integrated into one there is a significant savings, if only for the cost of redundant administrative staff and record keeping. A database could house a virtually unlimited list of licenses and information for a given individual.

Second, critics of a national ID contend that numerous dangers and failures prevent a national ID from being a feasible or acceptable option for the United States. Most notably Chris Calabrese with ACLU and Jim Harper of the Cato Institute have vehemently opposed the very concept on both civil liberties and effectiveness grounds.

Citizenship Database: A huge undertaking, a national citizenship status database would hold the vital information on citizens, non-citizens, and even suspected illegal immigrants. A criticism in itself from multiple perspectives, this database would be not only a security concern for identity theft, but also a huge cost for the state. The extension of this argument contends that a national ID system would be ineffective without a database in that forging would be measurably more prevalent and feasible.

Internal Passports/Monitoring: Included both in reference to individuals being stopped by police and to the continued tracking of private citizens, this critique asserts that the right to privacy overrules any potential gains from a national ID system (although, experts also assert that a national ID system would be ineffective regardless). Enhanced considerably by GPS and modern database technology, this monitoring could record citizens every move and potentially even predict the future based on this data.

Harassment/Discrimination: Bringing to mind recent outcry over the Supreme Court decision to uphold the key provision of Arizona’s immigration law, this argument charges a national ID system with furthering the prevalence of illegal or immoral activities, such as racial profiling, xenophobia, and neo-McCarthyism.

Facilitate Future Encroachment on Civil Liberties: The so called “slippery slope” argument asserts that in the future the existence of a national ID would act as reason in itself for further systemic violations of citizens’ rights. Furthermore, the existence of a national ID card and database would allow policymakers to consider options not currently available that threaten civil liberties.

Not Effective Solution: Most importantly of these arguments, however, experts refute the potential for a national ID as an effective solution. From referencing the immense bureaucratic requirements (and therefore costs) of a national ID system, the current ease of forging identification (most notably by teenagers to drink alcohol underage), and the danger of massive identity theft from government databases (note recent breaches of LinkedIn and Yahoo), there are numerous challenges and inherent negative security dangers associated with an integrated system.

Cultural Identity: The fear of totalitarian government and a police state is at the core of American culture. Likewise, consistent calls from both the left and the right emphasize that the United States has never been and should never be a “show me your papers” society, based purely on principle.

(Sources: the ACLU enumerates the “5 Problems with National ID”, Cato Institute’s Handbook for Policymakers 7th Edition Section 29, and Chris Calabrese’s response to New York Times Op-ed columnist Bill Keller’s “Show Me Your Papers”)

Acting on the potential benefits, the arguments supporting the system, and the overwhelming reasoned and cultural disputes to these benefits and arguments, policymakers have straddled the identification debate. The result has been a patchwork of government and private identification: driver’s licenses vary widely by state; health care providers/other private enterprises issue their own policyholder documents; organizations public, private, and non-profit alike issue membership cards, and the list does not stop there. Meanwhile, civil liberties continue to be violated or outright abolished by the horde of state and federal laws. In just the past decade Americans have seen the USA PATRIOT Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, the REAL ID Act, and voter identification and immigration laws, including most recently Arizona’s famous Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. This list, again, is only the highlights and shows that even without a national ID the state manages to find unique ways to infringe on individual rights. All furthering government capabilities at the expense of individual liberties, these laws have championed immigration control, crime prevention, national security, and valid elections. Conjuring the feeling that civil liberties violations are inevitable with or without the national ID, this trend begs the question: would not a national ID system prevent the necessity of these laws? However, we must consider the opposing question: are these laws are the lesser of two evils?

In comparison, this stark debate shows little similarity to the situation in Germany and Europe overall. With the Personalausweis system of mandated national identification strongly rooted in German society, there seems to be no comparison to the U.S. arguments. Consider that all eligible Germans are automatically registered to vote based on their address, which must be reported to the government. Furthermore, German citizens can move freely throughout nearly all of Europe by means of the Schengen Agreement. This trend is consistent across the all but four member states of the European Union that issue national identity cards. Displaying effects quite opposite to the tyrannical police state Americans fear, this trend of national IDs offers the exact set of benefits proponents point out, while seemingly skirting the consequences. Calling into question the legitimacy of critics’ opposition, this fact indicates that these negative evaluations are based less on rigorous analysis of policy and more on other factors.

In the case of the United States, these other factors primarily mean the deeply ingrained fear of state power that defines the American consciousness. This value alone, however, would lead to a very one-sided debate. Nevertheless, Americans simultaneously value fairness in government. This juxtaposition is the fuel for the debate over national ID. This domination by individuals’ fundamental hierarchy of values leads not only to the cyclical nature of this debate, but also to the ferocity on both sides. Each caucus works to undercut the opposition and further their agenda all by enacting a patchwork of laws and programs that suit their goals. Satisfying the anti-ID group, the United States continues to be without a national ID; however, policymakers in both parties also repeatedly sacrifice the individual to further the state (and thereby fulfill the fears of those against national ID) in the name of a fairer economy, fairer immigration, fairer elections, etc.

In this sense, until the fear of national ID loosens its grip on the American psyche, the implementation of a nationally standardized identification system is not only politically untenable, but also ill suited to American values. However, until policymakers find solutions to the nation’s pressing challenges, fairness demands resolution. Thus, policymakers face a stark choice: shun fairness and find alternative solutions to the U.S.’ imminent obstacles or snub fear and enact a national ID. In either case, a large segment of the American populous will have their values jilted.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.