By Joanna Chin | Staff Writer

I panicked. I had plans to travel to Mexico in a few months for a wedding, and I was suddenly wondering if I would even have the identification needed to get there. 

My passport was currently defunct because I had just submitted the renewal form, and who knew how long that would take to process! Additionally, in reviewing the New York DMV website for driver’s license renewal, I realized I had yet to get the new REAL ID. 

Wait — what was that again? The identification card with the star in the corner, right? Either way, the deadline was coming up soon…until I read an update a few days later that the deadline had been extended. Again. 

I breathed a sigh of relief. Plenty of time to get the ID now! But not everyone can breathe easy when it comes to the REAL ID. 

A whited-out Illinois driver's license highlighting the gold star in the corner, indicative of a REAL ID.
The star, which comes in five designs from this encircled gold start to a plain black star to a star inside of a bear, denotes that your state ID or driver’s license qualifies as a REAL ID.

What is the REAL ID?

Passed in Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in 2005, the Real ID Act aims to set minimum federal security standards for the state issuance of driver’s licenses and identification cards. 

Once fully enacted, the law will restrict access to federal facilities, nuclear plants, and commercial aircraft unless you have a verified REAL ID card or an alternative form of approved documentation

To attain a REAL ID, you must present certain documents at minimum, such as a photo identity document, documentation of the person’s date of birth, proof of Social Security Number or your ineligibility for it, proof of principal residence, and proof of lawful status. Lawful status can include citizenship documentation, a conditional permanent residential status, a valid and unexpired visa, and pending or approved asylum status.

Supporters of the policy point out that implementation of REAL IDs will help prevent identity theft and fraud, alleviate concerns around national security, provide additional funding to DMVs, and create a more standardized pathway to obtaining an identification card. 

So you just need an updated ID card? This seems simple enough until we consider the challenges of attaining legal immigration status, the 16-year history of efforts and extensions to implement the REAL ID Act, and the conditions through which the Act was established. 


Brief History of the REAL ID Act

  • 2001: The 9/11 terrorist attacks ignite an increased desire for reinforced national security measures and raise concerns related to how false IDs could feed criminal and terrorist threats. President Bush establishes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

  • 2002: DHS produces its first National Strategy for Homeland Security, which outlines initial measures to establish national ID card standards. 

  • 2005: Congress passes the REAL ID Act as part of a larger strategy to address national defense, the war on terror, and tsunami relief. The original deadline is set as 2008. 

  • 2007: The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 provides $50 million to assist states with the implementation of the Real ID.

  • 2008: After encountering opposition from some states and other obstacles, DHS extends the deadline to 2009, with the option of extending to 2011. This sets a precedent for additional extensions to come in the following years. 

  • 2016: DHS Secretary Johnson announces the final phase of the REAL ID, extends the deadline to obtain an ID to 2018, and mandates that all air travelers as of October 1, 2020, will need a REAL ID or an alternative ID for domestic air travel. 

  • 2019: Tension between DHS Secretary Politano and the REAL ID office complicates efforts regarding the phased implementation process. Despite this, only 5 remaining U.S. jurisdictions still need to begin issuing REAL IDs. 

  • 2020: On March 23, President Trump delays the deadline again, and a pandemic-related relief package is announced, which includes provisions for a new deadline of October 1, 2021.

  • 2021: The deadline is extended yet again to May 23, 2023, due to “circumstances resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

The REAL Deal: Who the REAL ID ACT Impacts Most 

While the REAL ID Act aims to create a definitive and secure pathway to obtaining an identification card, social justice advocates such as the ACLU raise concerns about how it may impact and exclude already-vulnerable populations once fully enacted. 

Because these concerns are nuanced, this post won’t cover the full scope, but we do want to focus on the pervasive ways that the REAL ID policy affects immigrants in the U.S.

Photo by omid bonyadian on

The Concerns

  • Since the REAL ID Act emerged from homeland security initiatives and attitudes that linked immigration with potential terrorist threats, further efforts could feed into unfounded yet increased hostility and fear towards immigrants. 
  • State DMVs now have the authority to enforce complex immigration laws when issuing ID cards to immigrants who are noncitizens. Local DMV officers may not be adequately trained to handle nuanced cases involving immigrants’ documentation and may render some immigrants’ status “noncompliant” in error. 
  • For noncitizens and undocumented immigrants who do not have a social security number or who have a contested lawful status, receiving a color-coded noncompliant ID could further mark them as “foreign” and “other.” This could make them vulnerable targets for local police who may make assumptions about their immigration status based on their distinctive card and subject them to unwarranted interrogation when they have the right to legal representation first. 
  • Some are also concerned about the security of the databases storing personally identifiable information related to the REAL IDs.
  • Since the process of naturalization or securing a visa can involve six months minimum of waiting time and cost $725 for each application, many noncitizen residents will experience restricted access to public life without a REAL ID. This also impacts immigrant workers who need a driver’s license to get to their workplaces — especially in rural settings — though some states have tried to alleviate these concerns, as in the 2014 case of Cubas v. Martinez
  • For asylum seekers, the language of the REAL ID Act requires them to prove that they are being persecuted on a central protected ground: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. This plays into the “burden of proof” asylum seekers have to present. This requirement of a central claim may not be problematic in itself, but the ramifications of this language are crucial to the asylum law.
  • The REAL ID Act also adds more subjectivity to how credibility can be established for asylum-seekers, and bias can play a significant role in how an immigration judge assesses applicants’ demeanor and presentation.
Photo by Alexander Suhorucov on

The Haves and Have-Nots

While these concerns emphasize the policy’s impact on immigrants, we should also examine how socioeconomic status, disability, and other identities shape individuals’ ability to secure a REAL ID. 

For instance, older age and disability can add extra challenges to getting to a DMV to meet the in-person requirement for a REAL ID, though recent policy recommendations may allow for electronic document submission and a potential pathway for future digital licenses. 

Since a proof of residence is also required to obtain the ID, this presents challenges for people who lack stable housing. In addition, not all American residents can easily pay the fees for either an ID renewal exchange with REAL ID or a passport renewal as an alternative — the fees can cost more than $100

However, noncompliance with the REAL ID Act not only restricts a person’s mobility within the U.S., specifically precluding air travel, but it can also potentially isolate them from everyday activities where a secure ID is required. This includes getting into a bar, buying medicine for a cold, and higher needs like applying for food stamps.

Taking Action: Ways to Engage the REAL ID Act 

There is no one-size-fits-all impact for policies like the REAL ID Act. Because of this, we must own our privileges along different spectrums of identity and status — particularly in respect to citizenship status. 

Moving forward with humility and compassion, we can educate ourselves about the complex policies that shape our everyday access to public life and advocate for people who could be disadvantaged by their application. 

What might be an “easy” step for one person to complete could be a weighty source of anxiety for another. 

That said, you can move forward with the following: 

  • Help inform others about the REAL ID Act and what it means. Look up the deadline for your state and raise awareness! 
  • Support access to affordable legal support and accommodations for immigrants. 
  • Dismantle narratives that frame immigrants as threats and examine the role of xenophobia in shaping U.S. policy
  • Reflect on the policies that govern how we migrate, access public life, and travel. What groups might experience challenges in those areas? Think of those who are unhoused, unemployed, and so forth.
Photo by Barbara Olsen on

3 thoughts on “Keeping it Real (ID)

    1. Hi Jim! That may be true for some. For the three of us on staff as able-bodied citizens, it’s been as easy as any driver’s license renewal. No big deal. But for our friends who aren’t in the same position, it’s a different story with very different ramifications.


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