Driver Licenses and National Security
By: Margaret D. Stock
Date: Thursday, 28. February 2008
The national debate about the connection between driver licenses and security has been characterized by misinformation, and a lack of appreciation of the role that driver license and state identification databases play in national security and law enforcement.
The collective DMV databases are the largest law enforcement databases in the country, with records on more individual adults than any other law enforcement databases. The collective DMV databases are the only comprehensive internal security database.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not yet have a comprehensive database on all adult residents of the United States(1); it maintains records only on a few categories of citizens and some aliens - aliens who have provided biometric information to DHS through US VISIT (2), aliens who have applied for visas or benefits with DHS, some aliens who have been arrested by DHS, or aliens who have voluntarily reported their information to DHS. Even DHS admits that its own databases are inferior to the DMV databases: When DHS wants to find someone, the primary government database it relies upon is the driver license database (3).
When a person appears at a state DMV and applies for a driver license, that person voluntarily provides the DMV with a variety of valuable personal information - including a key identifier, the digital photo (4). DMV databases thus contain biometric information, and a wealth of other valuable information that is updated on a regular basis, voluntarily, by the individual who has the license.
It is easy to see how valuable this data is by comparing the data available in a DMV database to other available government databases. The state birth certificate databases, for example, contain information only on those born or adopted in the United States, usually have no usable biometric information, and rarely have updated information, since most people do not notify vital statistics bureaus when they move. The federal Social Security databases contain records only on those persons who have Social Security numbers, have no biometric information, and may or may not have current address information; furthermore, their usefulness in providing information on the adult population is dropping rapidly as Social Security has tightened rules regarding the issuance of numbers.
Internal Revenue Service databases contain information only on those persons who pay taxes; these databases have no biometric information at all, and no updated information unless the person files a tax return. The State Department’s passport database contains biometric record, but only on US citizens and nationals who have applied for passports.
The U.S. Government does not know how many "illegal immigrants"(5) are present in the United States. Estimates have ranged from 8-15 million (6), but recently Bear Stearns reported that there are likely 20 million illegal immigrants in the United States (7). Those who are opposed to illegal immigration view the granting of driver licenses to illegal immigrants as a sort of reward and acknowledgement of complicity in their violation of the law. In fact, their opposition to granting licenses (and identification documents) to illegal immigrants is quite puzzling if one views the matter from a law enforcement and security perspective.
Refusing to give driver licenses to illegal immigrants means taking 20 million illegal immigrants out of the largest law enforcement database in the country. Thus, denial of licenses is a policy prescription that hampers law enforcement far more than it enhances it. If those who oppose granting driver licenses and state identification documents to illegal immigrants have their way, only US citizens and legal aliens will be in the largest law enforcement database in the country. Thus, when a law enforcement official needs to find someone who happens to be an illegal immigrant, she will have no government database in which to look.
Such a policy is likely to make it harder to enforce laws, not easier. Except perhaps for pro-immigrant libertarians, taking illegal migrants out of these databases makes no sense.
There is certainly no security rationale for doing this. Denying licenses to illegal migrants creates a larger haystack of people who are not in any government database - but who are in the country, living and working here.
What happens when people can't get US driver licenses or state identification cards? If they are illegal migrants, they do not go home. They stay in the United States. They take public transportation; they walk; they hitch a ride. They use fake licenses; they use foreign licenses; they pay money to corrupt DMV employees to get real licenses when they are not legally entitled to them (8).
Sometimes they steal someone else's identity in order to obtain a license; this corrupts the existing database information, but also makes it difficult to locate them and prosecute them. They give their data to private entrepreneurs who sell them so-called "international drivers licenses;" when they purchase such nongovernmental identification, their data does not end up in the government's DMV database system, and cannot be accessed by US law enforcement officials.
Anyone even slightly familiar with US immigration law knows how complicated it is; in the words of a government spokesperson, immigration law is "a mystery and a mastery of obfuscation"(9). It is not possible today for a state or local law enforcement official to pick up the telephone and find out immediately if a given person is "legal"; it can take hours or even days to figure this out, and often the immediate information provided by DHS about a person's status can be wrong.
Because state DMV officials are not immigration experts, when they cannot issue a license or identification document without confirming someone's status, they will inevitably issue some licenses to people who should not have them, and deny licenses to others who are entitled to them. In addition to harming security by making it harder for law enforcement to find and identify people, such a policy will inevitably lead to an increase in lawsuits brought by people who are entitled to have a license but are wrongfully denied one (10).
Given the level of misinformation in some immigrant communities, it is also highly likely that fewer migrants will apply for a license, even if they are legally entitled to them.
A policy of denying licenses and state identification documents to illegal migrants will inevitably hurt law enforcement. A multitude of state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies access this data on a daily basis to investigate crimes, track down suspects, and prove crimes (11). Immigration enforcement authorities rely on this data heavily.
For example, driver license data is frequently used to prosecute illegal immigrants for such things as criminal re-entry after deportation. DMV data is also used to confirm aliens’ eligibility for government benefits, as when an alien must prove that he was present in the United States at a particular point in time. Having DMV data on illegal migrants not only helps law enforcement, but it cuts down on fraud in benefits applications.
Here are five myths about driver licenses and security:
Myth #1: Terrorists can't get on airplanes if they don't have drivers licenses.
Reality : A potential terrorist could get on an airplane today using a wide variety of government-issued identification documents, including a US or foreign passport.
Myth #2: The 9/11 terrorists were able to obtain a total of 63 drivers licenses between them.
Reality : According to a Staff Report of the 9/11 Commission, the 19 hijackers had 13 driver licenses. The hijackers also had state IDs, and identification cards purchased from a private company 13 that apparently issued "identification cards" to anyone willing to pay for one. One hijacker had neither a state ID nor a drivers license, and he boarded his target airplane with his foreign passport. It is important to note that information from the driver license records of the hijackers was invaluable after 9/11 in tracking where the terrorists had been in the United States and with whom they had associated. This information was also used to prosecute many individuals who would not have been discovered otherwise.
Myth #3: Our illegal immigrant problem will be solved if we just deny driver licenses to people who can't prove that they are lawfully in the United States.
Reality : Illegal immigrants do not leave the United States because they cannot get a driver license.
Myth #4: It’s easy for state DMVs to determine whether someone is legal or illegal.
Reality : It’s difficult even for DHS to tell whether someone is legal or illegal at any given moment. Immigration law is extremely complicated, and immigration status is a moving target. A person can be legal one day and illegal the next; illegal one day and legal the next. DHS often tries to deport US citizens under the mistaken belief that these US citizens are illegal immigrants. If DHS can't figure out whether someone is a citizen or an alien, or whether someone is legal or illegal, how is a state DMV employee going to do so?
Myth #5: Denying driver licenses to illegal immigrants will improve our national security.
Reality : Denying drivers licenses to illegal immigrants will hurt our national security by depriving law enforcement officials of critical information on substantial numbers of adults who are physically present in the United States. Law enforcement officials will be less able to find persons who may be security threats, and will have less information with which to prevent and solve crimes. When a terrorist incident happens, it will be harder afterwards to determine what happened, and when.
The 9/11 terrorists did not need driver licenses to get on the airplanes they used as weapons on September 11. On the other hand, law enforcement needed the driver license data after the fact to figure out where the terrorists had been, how they moved, and who helped them. As the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators stated in its October 2003 report, Access to Drivers License and Identification Card Data by Law Enforcement:
"Law enforcement agencies, federal, state and local, use the driver license image on a frequent basis to identify victims, criminal suspects, missing children and the elderly. Digital images from driver records have significantly aided law enforcement agencies charged with homeland security. The events of September 11, 2001 clearly demonstrate the value of the driver record photograph. The 19 terrorists obtained driver licenses from several states and federal authorities relied heavily on those images for the identification of the individuals responsible for the horrific criminal acts on that fateful day" (14).
Rather than trying to deny licenses and state identification cards to illegal immigrants, we should be encouraging every adult present in America to get a license or identification card. We should also be improving the computer systems that allow law enforcement officials in one jurisdiction to verify driving history and identification information from other jurisdictions quickly and accurately. Systems exist today to share certain data between jurisdictions, but they can be slow and inefficient, and different states use different standards for inputting the data. Additionally, states are not yet able to share digital photograph information easily across jurisdictions (15).
People should be prosecuted for providing false information about themselves to DMV - but whether they get a driver license or a state ID should not be linked to their immigration status.
In fact, to enhance law enforcement and security efforts, immigration status should be irrelevant. People should be required to prove their identity, using secure documents that can be verified.
In turn, the driver license or state identification document should be a secure document that can be verified easily. Our security will be enhanced by allowing all adults in the United States to obtain a driver license or state identification document from the DMV with jurisdiction over their domicile.
About the author
An associate Professor of Law in the Department of Law, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, professor Stock is the Course Director for the Law Department's National Security Law course. In addition to National Security Law, Professor Stock teaches Constitutional and Military Law, International Law, and Human Rights Law. Professor Stock is a 1992 graduate of Harvard Law School, where she was the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
She has an undergraduate degree in Government from Harvard-Radcliffe (1985) and a Master’s in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (2001).
Professor Stock has been a practicing attorney in the field of immigration and nationality law for more than ten years and speaks frequently about United States immigration law at continuing legal education events. She is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Military Police Corps, United States Army Reserve, and is currently assigned as the Deputy Provost Marshal, United States Forces Japan.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s opinions only, and do not purport to reflect the views of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.
This article was originally published in Bender's Immigration Bulletin. 422 (Mar. 1, 2005), republished with permission
(1) While a more comprehensive database is planned, it does not yet exist-and would have to incorporate DMV databases if it intends to be comprehensive. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 required the integration of all data systems related to visa issuance and monitoring into "Chimera," an interoperable, interagency computer-based data management system. This system does not yet exist. Cynics will note that "chimera" is defined as “a foolish fancy” in the dictionary. Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary at 256 (1984 ed.).
(2) U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) is an integrated, automated entry-exit security system that tracks the arrival and departure of aliens, verifies their identities, and authenticates their travel documents using biometric identifiers such as fingerprints and photographs.
(3) U.S. Gov't Accountability Office, Alien Registration: Usefulness of a Nonimmigrant Alien Annual Address Reporting Requirement is Questionable, GAO-05-204 (January 2005) ("ICE agents said that they consider the data found in existing public source database systems such as department of motor vehicle records, credit bureaus, court filings, and Internet search engines that compile address and other information to be more current and reliable [than the DHS address database]") (emphasis added).
(4) American Ass'n of Motor Vehicle Administrators, Access to Drivers License and Identification Card Data by Law Enforcement, October 2003 ("Typically, the digital images (signature and photograph) are reliable, of good quality and in most cases provide the most recent image of a criminal suspect. The images embedded in driver license records have proven to be a valuable resource for law enforcement and today represents one of the most valuable resources to investigators.").
(5) Some advocates prefer the term "undocumented aliens," but I use the term "illegal immigrants" because many aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States do in fact have documents - albeit foreign documents, fraudulent documents, or expired documents.
(6) See, e.g. Jeffrey Passel, New Estimates of the Undocumented Population, Migration Policy Institute, May 22, 2002
(7) Robert Justich and Betty Ng, The Underground Labor Force Is Rising to the Surface, Bear Stearns Asset Management, Jan. 3, 2005.
(8) In states that have instituted policies to bar licenses to illegal immigrants, the incidence of DMV employees selling licenses to unauthorized persons has increased significantly. See, e.g., Michael Riley and Alicia Caldwell, Fierce Demand Drives Illegal-License Market, Denver Post, Jan. 30, 2005, at A1 (describing the booming market for driver licenses purchased from corrupt DMV employees in Colorado, California, and elsewhere); Avi Salzman, Governor Considers a Delay in Issuing Licenses , N.Y.Times, Dec. 26, 2004, Section 14CN, at 2 (describing investigations into driver license fraud at Connecticut DMV).
(9) Metro: In Brief , Washington Post, April 24, 2001, at B1 (quoting INS spokeswoman Karen Kraushaar as stating "Immigration is a mystery and a mastery of obfuscation, and the lawyers who can figure it out are worth their weight in gold").
(10) For example, one is likely to see NAFTA discrimination claims from Canadians and Mexicans who are wrongly denied licenses, since NAFTA requires them to be treated equally with US residents when it comes to such matters.
(11) Law enforcement agencies that rely on DMV databases daily include the US Department of State; the US Department of Justice; the US Department of Homeland Security; the Postal and Inspection Service; the Department of Defense; the US Secret Service; the Department of the Army; the US Coast Guard; the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; the Department of the Interior; the Veterans Administration; the National Insurance Crime Bureau; the Federal Protective Service; the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; Amtrak; and many others.
(12) For a detailed and public list of all the hijackers and the various driver licenses and identification documents that they had, see 9/11 and Terrorist Travel: A Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, at 44 (Hillsboro ed. 2004). In determining this total, I counted twelve original licenses and a duplicate license obtained with a different address; I did not count actual duplicates. Thus, it is possible for a reasonable person to argue that the hijackers carried twelve, thirteen, or seventeen driver licenses, depending on how one counts the duplicates. The hijackers carried a total of thirty-seven domestically-obtained "identity" documents, including thirty-one issued by state DMVs, and six obtained from a private company that issues "ID Cards" to anyone who is willing to pay for one. Eleven terrorists had state driver licenses, and of these, five had obtained some form of duplicate license; one had obtained two separate driver licenses, one from California and one from Florida. The licenses they had came from Arizona, California, and Florida. Eleven terrorists had state identification cards; their state identification cards came from Florida, Maryland, and Virginia. The Staff Report notes that hijacker Satam al Suqami “the only hijacker who did not have a state-issued identification, used his Saudi passport as a check-in identification for American Airlines.” Id. at 43.
(13) For example, Salem Alhazmi had a “USA ID” card issued by “USA ID Systems” “in accordance with US law.” Id. at A-21. "USA ID Systems" is an "Internetional Corp" [sic] operating in various places in the United States, but it is not a government agency; this ID was not government-issued, and should not have been valid for any government purpose. See Toursrus.net.
(14) American Ass'n of Motor Vehicle Administrators, Access to Drivers License and Identification Card Data by Law Enforcement, October 2003 (emphasis added).
(15) The Interstate Digital Image Exchange, an initiative to share such images, promises to be a worthwhile way to enhance security by making it easier for law enforcement officials to identify all persons present in the United States.
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Showing 1 - 19 comments
Hi, My Dad has been stalked by a woman for a few years now and she has done all kinds of things to harass other members of the family. Because of her position, she can get cooperation from people who normally wouldn't fall for her line, but lately she has been obsessed with getting a copy of my driver's license. Everywhere I go that she has contacted someone, and there will be one person in each office who sympathizes with her, they ask for a new copy of my license.
She has my address, phone, DL #, email and SSN already; what more can she get off my license?? Does anyone know? She has seen me and taken photos, so it isn't that either.
Iv lost my zimbabwean driving licence n need a replacement how do I go about it
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sorry for getting out of topic but it's what must of been said.
Many people do not know what immigrants go through on a daily basis, i have friends whose parents came to this country because of financial oppertunities and their job is either by cleaning houses or construction work just this is very stressful situation.
Now imagine not being to renew or apply for drivers licenses.
Many americans are very stubbon and do not know that America's engine is the immigrants that we all know and love. A high percentile do not wish that immigrants deserve to be legalized because of a fear for them being better than they are.
Alot of lifes is gambled, for instance i know someone that they graduaded high school with a 3.7GPA and amazing CAT scores, that person was suppose to receive a scholarship called HOPE this scholarship would pay almost all of the college expenses, but that person did not receive that scholarship because of them being illegal instead of paying normal resident fees this person has to pay almost $2K more because they have to out-of-state fees even though they live in the same state. this person is very dedicated, now which person seems like they would of deserved a scholarship someone who is a immigrant and receives astonoshing grades or a american who receives the scholarship by barely passing with the required GPA and lose the scholarship during the college terms?
if your license has been stolen or you think your identity is being stolen you should talk to the police. If you think someone has faked your license and might be getting tickets you should check your driver record which is available at your state DMV.
There's a list of links for each state at
how can you find out if someone is using your drivers licenzse and social security cared.
People also forget that illegal immigrants also contribute to the country's economy, and have jobs and need to drive to get there... I doubt they drive just to drive, they do it because they must to have a normal life.
Lou Dobbs should read this article. It's obvious that in his rants against licensing of illegal migrants he has not looked at the facts of the case
Many of the "Undocumented Immigrants" work and pay Federal and State income tax. They have ITIN numbers - which they should be allowed to use to apply for a drivers license.
Most US citizens do not realize there. is NO Path to citizenship in the USA. Even for immigrants who came here as children. This needs to be changed. Many would love become legal.
Re Republican, above --- That's kinda typical. If someone says something you disagree with they must be Stupid, or evil, or hard of hearing.
It's NOT a simple question of being illegal. There's the practicalities of the situation. The illegals are here (most of them under a Republican administration) so local jurisdictions have to deal with the situations they have at hand.
If someone is going to drive anyway, at least give them the opportunity to protect those they share the road with through insurance. Let the feds deal with their status.
I agree, driver license for all who can pass necessary tests. Safety is the issue, not immigration.
well why do you guys judge us by our covers? not everyone is the same. i'm not asking for anything big, just guve some people a chance. you think we just come here illegaly because we want to? you have the least knowledge of what we suffer!
So if you are a citizen and the person who hits you is not a citizen and is not insured then who do you, thick skulls, think will pay your damages?? You of course or your insurance company. Get smart, all drivers should pass a driver's test and get insurance just like every one else. Who cares about legal or not if they are driving and they will be driving if they are in this country. Ever been hit by a lady who has never driven hardly or passed a driver's exam and then hits you and has no insurance? Well my friend was hit, and the lady is gone. We in this country refused to make or allow her to pass a driving test and get insurance, so my friend is in life long rehab, and her insurance has paid for everything.
Please think on this.
Why should illegal immigrants have any rights here? They are ILLEGAL, they should not be here in the first place. If they want to live in the US, make them go through the legal immigration process. Other countries have this figured out.
for all those republicans, "if" the illegals get a driver license, and you say ; how we know if they are who realy are? simple, then they CANNOT get another ID under other name, thanks to the high tech, using today on issuing driver's ID. vey simple. dont be a heartless.
Republican, you missed the point. They're illegal but they're here!!!! Are you saying they should drive ILLEGALLY? because that's what they do so no insurance if they hit YOU
you can never be too careful
I am glad that finally someone is speaking out about the reality of this overly complicated issue. This country is bombarded everyday with media that paints the picture of undocumented immigrants being a threat to national security if they have driver's licenses when it is actually the contrary. Almost all the states in the union have passed laws negating driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and are starting to see the negative repercussions. Aside from the issue of national security it is also an issue of safety. A licensed driver has to know the laws. No state allows a person to get a license without passing the proper driving examination. Driving licenses should not be seen as privilege to the US citizens. They should be seen as a requirement to anyone who driving!