Our new National ID card - or not.

My wife Won was a citizen of Korea, and a Permanent Resident of the United States. (She also passed her citizenship test.)

When she died, I spent a day in Seoul Korea with her mother, registering her as deceased, and turning in her Korean National ID card.

I had quite a bit of experience, through her, with how her National ID card was used. For instance, in order to sign up for an email address with Hanmail.net, she had to use her Korean Resident Registration Number to verify that she was eligible to have a Korean email address. She also had to use her ID to sign up for a "Hulu" style Korean television website.

It's difficult to be anonymous online in South Korea. It is difficult (if not impossible) for a Korean speaking foreigner to get access to a Korean website dedicated to Korean nationals.

But their is a way around this - Identity theft. Many Koreans just 'borrow' another Korean's Resident Registration Number. Someone did that with a former South Korean president, and gained access to hundreds of porn websites. (If you get caught doing that you can be jailed for up to 3 years and fined as much as $9000.)

In Korea you need your National ID card to open a bank account, get married, go to school, buy or rent a home or car. You are required to display your National ID card upon demand by law enforcement or military officials. You must have the card in order to travel to some places in South Korea (especially near the Demilitarized Zone.) You display your ID when cashing a check, and if you pay your utility bills in cash, you might still be asked to show your ID.

If you lose your card, you must get it replaced immediately (and fill out a form as to how and where you lost it.) If you are caught by police without the ID card they may hold you until they can verify your citizenship. I'm told that this could be an unpleasant process, depending on how you act and what mood the police are in.

But in many ways a Korean National ID card is used much like an American Driver's License is used for identification. The difference is that in Korea, everyone is issued this card at the age of adulthood (about 19 years old).


Americans have traditionally been very defensive about their right to privacy. We think that some things are not the Government's business. Stop and Identify statutes in the US require that you give your real name to an officer upon demand - but until the new Arizona immigration law came out you were not required to produce legal identification. (But failing to produce ID upon demand makes you look suspicious, and an officer has the right to detain suspicious looking people... so...)

There is also a very strong religious sentiment against any sort of national identification. In the Bible, Revelation 13:16-18 seems to talk about a form of identification without which "no one is allowed to buy or sell things". Korea's National ID card would seem to fill that bill - without a Resident Registration Number a Korean could not open a business, get a business license, or buy public services such as cable television or electricity.

We Americans are also still suffering from "Red Scare". We recognize the dangers of political power narrowly held by an elite faction or individual, and anything that smells remotely of totalitarianism gives us the heebie-jeebies. Conservatives and Liberals both point to legislation that they say are signs of impending totalitarianism. A national ID card is one item that both camps seem to agree on.


Arizona's new immigration law, and someone's Twitter comments, got me thinking - what if America DID have a national ID card? Would it be so bad? And then I found out that we DO have a National ID card. Sort of.

It's called the Real ID Act of 2005.

In 2005, Congress enacted the "Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, 2005". This act (PDF link) became public law in order to:
Making Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2005, and for other purposes.
The Real ID portion of this act is contained in the "other purposes" section.

According to Real ID, drivers licenses will be required to display the citizenship status of every card holder. The issuers of state drivers licenses are also required to verify the card holder's citizenship with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If a Resident Alien is here on some sort of temporary status, then his or her drivers license will have an expiration date that reflects that status.

In California, my drivers license is good for 10 years. Under this new law, it must be renewed every 8 years.

As part of this law, states would be required to link their license and ID databases and share driver / citizen data by a state compact called the Driver License Agreement. The DLA is also connected with (or accessible to) foreign countries. From what little I've learned about the DLA, if you commit a traffic offense while visiting another state, you may be charged as if you had broken the law in your home state.

Real ID was supposed to take effect in 2008, but due to opposition, and technical difficulties, the deadline has been extended to 2011. As you might imagine, there has been some serious opposition to this act from Conservatives and Liberals. Some states have passed laws or resolutions that refuse to implement Real ID. Democrats talk about how the Real ID technology will allow the government to track your every move, eroding privacy. Republicans are claiming that Real ID will (further) erode State's sovereignty, giving another State right to the Federal Government.

With all of this controversy, I don't think that Real ID will be implemented. I didn't even know it was current law until yesterday - the DMV hasn't said anything about it to me, so I guess California is waiting to see if they will have to comply first.


I'm an American Citizen, and yet I'm not required to carry any sort of identification that proves that I am a citizen. Oddly, my wife was required by law to carry identification that proved she was NOT an American Citizen, but once she had been sworn in, she would also not be required to carry identification that proved she was a citizen. Even the new Arizona law does not require people in Arizona to carry proof of citizenship - police officers just subject suspects to a citizenship verification process that might take several days to complete. (hint - it goes much faster if you carry your passport!)

I'm still unsure what I think about an American National ID card, whether we enact a de facto national ID like the Real ID act, or a real national ID like South Korea, Japan and China - or if we just keep our current status quo. On one hand, I can see how a totalitarian government like China might misuse such an ID. But on the other hand I saw how it allowed Won to enjoy benefits granted to her by South Korea, benefits that were denied to me because I was not a Korean citizen.

I think I'm going to continue looking for good arguments both for and against this issue until I can make up my mind on it. Right now, the only reason I have for really liking the idea of a national ID card is that I'd get to see conservative religious leaders turn purple as they bang their bibles in protest of Satan's mark.

Hmm. Maybe if we use an implantable microchip instead of an ID card...

5 comments:

Scientiae said...

I have the same reasons you do for liking the idea--and, I'm sad to say, some of the same heebie-jeebies as others. (Sad because I like to think I'm the exception to American frontiersman rugged individualism, otherwise known as big-government paranoia. But of course I'm not, completely--all said and done, I was born and raised here.) I can think of a number of ways such things can be abused, with identity theft being one of the most benign.

I'll try and follow your thoughts/research/info on this one--I'm still undecided as well.

Peter Wall said...

I'm still undecided about national identification cards. The whole history of the United States might be told as the story of how a bunch of fiercely distinct regional, colonial, and immigrant populations who banded together initially against a perceived common enemy have gradually homogenized and nationalized their identity. But we still have strong regional differences, so that story would be pretty weak. Our sense of state and federal identity seems at times like a compartmentalized mind—we call on one or the other identity when it's convenient or politically expedient to do so. People who, for a particular issue, prefer a weaker government that will give them more leeway, seem to call on state sovereignty, while they might invoke the federal government when they favor a broad, unified, and standardized approach across the nation.

I remember a few years ago getting into an argument with a states-rights libertarian over a case where an unmarried interracial couple somewhere in the deep South had invoked a federal civil rights claim against a local government that had penalized them for living together as an interracial couple or without being married (I don't remember the details exactly). While he was much more interested in getting us mired in the problem of whether the protections in the Bill of Rights are incorporated into the 14th Amendment and therefore enforceable against state and local governments (and in perpetuating the false narrative of the federal government "involving itself" in local affairs, even though the parties had invoked federal rights on their own) I kept asking why he chose this place to pick his fight. Assuming he was right that federal constitutional protections should not apply against state and local governments, wasn't the subtext of his argument essentially that local governments should be allowed to discriminate against people for such terrible reasons? He refused to answer, saying that the federalist principle held true regardless. That seemed pretty weaselly to me.

(continued in next comment)

Peter Wall said...

(continued from previous comment)

Even so, as I understand constitutional theory in this country, sovereignty and the natural "police powers" said to arise from it, belongs to the states, except to the extent they have granted some powers to the federal government by the Constitution. Which, to add a wrinkle, was rhetorically propounded by "We the People" but ratified by state conventions instead of popular votes. Meanwhile, the Constitution also gives the federal government sole authority to regulate "Naturalization" and "Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes," so that states are not actually bestowing citizenship. Tricky.

There is probably some good scholarship out there that I haven't read yet, but it sure seems to me that our complex system of government is almost tailor-made to obliterate the concept of citizens identifying themselves with some unit of sovereignty, given the fact that our "citizenship" arises from the federal government, while its "sovereignty" arises from the states. (Hence the compartmentalized mindset we see in the political discourse.) But isn't it practically true that we only have "United States citizenship" for the purpose of foreign travel? Within the United States, we have Social Security numbers for federal identification and state driver licenses (or non-driver identification cards) for general identification.

So why would we need a national identification card? Despite the bizarre complexity of our government, I haven't really heard arguments that there would be some kind of administrative cataclysm without one. We just get these pessimistic proclamations about "terrorism" and "national security," as though they were self-evident.* It just seems like a proxy for nativism and racism, sort of the way that states-rights libertarian appeared to use federalism as a proxy for his desire to impose family morality on others.


* For an excellent critique of the "national security" concept, I highly recommend The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich.

Calladus said...

I've been arguing on Twitter with another gentleman that perhaps we don't "need" a national ID card. (He is adamantly against a national ID card.)

But at the same time, I think even you will admit Peter that carrying a driver's license, birth certificate and Social Security Card are not documents that are rigorous enough to prove citizenship by themselves.

In order to be effective, these documents must be cross referenced with the USCIS, who then makes some sort of determination. Whether that determination is, "legal citizen" or "NOT an illegal immigrant" - I dunno. (The two positions are very different!)

The gentleman I'm in a discussion with has a passport, and is of the opinion that a passport is a dandy way of proving citizenship - so much so that he thinks every true American citizen should carry one.

My point on this is based upon my observation of the Social Security System. Since SSN's were first issued, they have steadily become more and more mandatory in identifying us in our business transactions. They are placed on our medical forms, taken when we buy a car, and of course they can be used to identify our citizenship when we apply for a job. We even write these SSNs on our checks!

If everyone has a passport, over time it will become a de facto citizenship card.

We don't "need" a national ID card because anything that is sufficient in itself to identify us as a citizen of the United States will, over time, become a national ID card.

And I don't know what I think about that either.

Peter Wall said...

But other than receiving certain government benefits and for identification during foreign travel, when do we really need to establish our citizenship? And in those cases, how would a national identification card improve the status quo?