The law of unintended consequences

By Michelle Chen Apr 27, 2009

Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano indicated last week that she is open to reforming the Real ID Act–the controversial 2005 legislation that purported to standardize driver’s licenses and block access for undocumented immigrants and people deemed security threats. The onerous documentation requirements of REAL ID have been widely blasted on both public safety and civil rights grounds. Critics cite a lack of safeguards against bureaucratic error, a heavy cost burden for states, and potential privacy violations. Many states have passed legislation to oppose the law and its timeline for implementation. The National Immigration Law Center reports that an estimated 12 percent of low-income Americans “do not have a readily available U.S. passport, naturalization document, or birth certificate.” Advocates also doubts REAL ID’s effectiveness as immigration control. NILC puts it, “Immigrants do not come to this country to get a driver’s license, and they will not leave because they are ineligible for one.” A bill now circulating on Capitol Hill would reform REAL ID’s mandates by giving states more time and flexibility to set up licensing policies. In Massachussets, Gov. Deval Patrick recently told reporters that with a green light from Washington, he might look into a state-based licensing system as part of an effort to establish “immigration laws that are consistent with our values.” But a greater state role won’t necessarily produce an effective solution. In a 2005 policy brief, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition noted multiple flaws in the state’s “driving certificate” program, established as an alternative to an official license. The Coalition said the two-tier licensing structure had left many immigrants vulnerable to discrimination and other barriers to services that required official identification. Driver’s licenses may seem like bureaucratic tedium to many, but REAL ID represents a larger pattern of pushing undocumented immigrants and others further outside the purview of law and critical social services. Recent changes to Medicaid rules similarly imposed citizenship documentation requirements on applicants to prove eligibility. Critics warned this could deter eligible individuals from enrolling, including U.S.-born children of immigrants. One of the troubling ironies of the policy is that in some cases, other groups were harder hit than the undocumented immigrants that the rules were designed to exclude. In 2007, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tracked Medicaid enrollment in Alabama, Kansas and Virginia and found that enrollment had “declined by a larger percentage among white and African American children than among Hispanic children after the requirement took effect.” Presumably, many low-income parents couldn’t produce the necessary birth certificates or other papers (and may have been less vigilant than Latino parents about collecting necessary documentation to ward off legal hassles). The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 recently eased some of the documentation rules, which could help protect families’ access to care. But at this point, such policies have already proven how perilously easy it is for the system to turn everyday mundanities—registering with the DMV or signing up for insurance—into blunt instruments of punishment, affecting “legal” and “illegal” alike. The unintended consequences may soon spur corrective action from the government, but we’ll never know how many people’s lives were harmed before officials decided to set aside anti-immigrant rhetoric and face reality. Image: The West Georgian