Congress to Require Background Check for Driver’s Licenses

Congress is set to require states to ensure that people to whom they issue driver’s licenses are in the country legally.

Congress May Require Closer Scrutiny to Get a Driver’s License (NYT | RSS)

Congress is moving quickly toward setting strict rules on how states issue driver’s licenses, requiring them to verify whether each applicant for a new license or a renewal is in this country legally. A House and Senate conference now taking place has included the requirements, which apply to all 50 states and other jurisdictions that issue licenses, in a supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq, aides involved in the process said on Monday. The draft legislation will be completed in the next few days and is all but certain to pass.

State officials complain that the new requirements will add a costly, complicated burden to the issuance of driver’s licenses, which has been their responsibility for almost a century. Civil rights organizations and privacy advocates say that they are concerned that a standardized driver’s license would amount to a national identification card and that a central database would be vulnerable to identify theft.

The proposed regulations, intended to deter terrorist attacks, would replace a provision of the intelligence bill passed in December that called on state and federal agencies to develop new rules for licenses. That law did not specifically require states to check the citizenship or immigration status of applicants.

Eleven states now grant driver’s licenses to noncitizens who do not have visas. There is no reliable estimate of how many licenses have been issued to noncitizens, whether in the country legally or illegally.

It’s stunning to me that states aren’t already doing this, since a driver’s license is a de facto “national” ID now. Further, since the passage of Motor Voter, anyone can register to vote when they get their drivers’ license, effectively giving suffrage to illegal aliens and others who should not be eligible. Of course, since many states don’t require picture ID to vote–for fear of intimidating voters who are afraid of plastic–it’s somewhat of a moot point.

Update (0855): Cori Dauber agrees that driver’s licenses are “a de facto national ID” and thinks “It’s about damn time” Congress did this.

Steven Taylor would prefer a de jure national ID and correctly wonders whether state DMVs are the best institution for handling such matters.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jack Tanner says:

    Explain how Congress has the right or enforcement capacity to regulate issuance of state licenses?

  2. Brian J. says:

    Interstate commerce. It’s all interstate commerce.

  3. McGehee says:

    It’s stunning to me that states aren’t already doing this, since a driver’s license is a de facto “national” ID now.

    Maybe the reason is because “de facto” is not the same as de jure?

  4. McGehee says:

    It’s all interstate commerce.

    Yes, unfortunately it is. Even if all you’re doing is selling apples off your tree to your next-door neighbor, it’s “interstate commerce” because somebody somewhere is selling apples across state lines.

    As for my previous comment, the update wasn’t displaying when I submitted it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  5. RE Gardner says:

    A previous iteration (perhaps this one) would make drivers’ licenses from states that did not submit to the Fed requirement ineligable as picture ID for boarding commercial aircraft. In this way, they can apply the Commerce Clause. Can you imagine the outcry in say, Oregon, if their DL’s were no longer accepted at the airport (Oregon DLs today would not meet the requirements)?

    A couple of weeks ago a friend changed his DL from Maryland to Virginia. In addition to his MD license, Virginia required him to provide another document such as his Birth Certificate (or another from a list of about 30 other documents, such as a pilot’s license).

  6. Scott Dillard says:

    I fully support Real ID. Where I work, in the Big City Welfare Office, we are required under the Motor Voter law, to offer voter registration to everyone applying for or renewing eligibility for welfare. Our workers are FORBIDDED to differentiate between citizens, resident aliens, and illegals, even when the illegals self-declare. How’s that for insane? You can thank Bill Clinton for this.