ALBANY -- New Yorkers looking to board a domestic flight or take a cruise next year could find themselves grounded unless they have driver's licenses containing additional security data soon to be required by the federal government.
That's because the state has failed to comply with the minimum standards of the federal Real ID system, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, by not mandating these so-called enhanced licenses. The state contends it has complied because it makes enhanced licenses available to those who want them.
At an undetermined date next year, the federal government is expected to require that state driver's licenses meet minimum security standards to board even domestic flights and cruises under the Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005 based on a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission.
New Yorkers will then have to hold an "enhanced driver's license" embedded with passport-type data. Without an enhanced license or enhanced nondriver's ID, travelers will need a passport, passport card, permanent residency card, birth certificate or one of a few other acceptable pieces of identification, in addition to their standard driver's license, to fly, go on a cruise or to enter most federal buildings. A passport card is a wallet-sized card that can be used to enter the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by land or sea, but not by air.
New York State has offered enhanced licenses since 2009. They can be used under the federal Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
But New York's Department of Motor Vehicles has resisted making everyone get them, because of the additional administrative costs to the state and the 50 percent increase in the license fee for drivers (an enhanced license costs $30 more than a standard license), DMV spokesman Joseph Morrissey said. It also wants to avoid forcing all applicants to make the required in-person applications to obtain the licenses, he said.
The Cuomo administration argues that because it offers enhanced licenses, the state meets the antiterrorism measures required under the Real ID program, without forcing the cost on New Yorkers who don't want the enhanced license.
DMV says no additional measures are being taken to advise residents of the change. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security "has not yet announced when changes may go into effect. Until such time, every New York State driver license or nondriver ID is enough proof of identity to get someone on a plane without incurring additional costs associated with purchasing the enhanced driver license," Morrissey said.
"At the time DHS makes such an announcement, we will evaluate whether additional steps are needed," he said. "Again, our . . . [enhanced driver's license] is considered Real ID compliant. We've also been assured that we will have ample notice when and if the federal government makes a determination."
800G new IDs issued
But the feds aren't buying that the state is compliant, because the more than 800,000 enhanced licenses in New York that have been issued since 2009 are only a fraction of the more than 11.5 million active driver's licenses in the state.
New York, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and American Samoa remain out of compliance, according to the federal Department of Homeland Security.
This year, New Hampshire Gov. Margaret Wood Hassan notified applicants for licenses that because its legislature hadn't acted to comply with Real ID, their New Hampshire driver's licenses might not be accepted at some federal buildings or for air travel in 2016.
Air passenger advocates also warn of privacy and cost concerns. "We certainly are not happy at the prospect of passengers having to pay any extra fee for 'enhanced' IDs to travel by air, boat or rail," said Douglas Kidd, executive director of the Virginia-based National Association of Airline Passengers.
"We understand the need for security, but whether the Real ID and the additional personal data associated with it actually provides any real security remains to be seen," he said, citing collection of personal data by the National Security Agency.
Additional data required for an enhanced license include proof of U.S. citizenship and a Social Security number through employment and tax records. State residency also must be proved from a list of specific records, which include bank statements and school report cards.
"The government has had their computers hacked many times, so you give them all this information in good faith and they can't protect the information you give them," Kidd said. "Identity theft is a real concern."
Immigrant advocates say the more stringent federal requirements will bar some longtime immigrants from air travel, according to dmv.org, a private-sector website that covers motor vehicle issues nationwide.
The National Immigration Law Center said some immigrants lawfully residing in the United States could be grounded because some immigration statuses aren't accepted under Real ID criteria. Those disallowed statuses include immigrants seeking nonimmigrant visas because they are victims of human trafficking and immigrants who were paroled from other countries into the United States.
Act called 'irrational'
Twelve states including California, New Mexico and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia, allow "unauthorized immigrants" to secure driver's licenses, and other states have similar proposals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York doesn't provide licenses to immigrants living here illegally, but neighboring Vermont does.
Immigrants who can't provide sufficient documents for an enhanced driver's license could still get traditional driver's licenses in those 12 states, but their license would be clearly distinctive from enhanced ones, which concerns immigration advocates.
"Many in Congress did not recognize the irrationality and complexity of implementation of the Real ID Act's requirements," states the National Immigration Law Center, based in Washington. "States have now realized the cost, complexity, and burden of complying with Real ID. . . . Driver's license restrictions for immigrants simply make the roads less safe for everyone, increase insurance rates and the number of unlicensed drivers, and undermine effective law enforcement."
In Albany, two state senators have introduced a bill that would force the Cuomo administration to make all driver's licenses compliant with the federal antiterrorism law without increasing fees.
"From a national perspective, people don't realize what will be required of them very soon," said state Sen. Joe Griffo (R-Utica). "From a state perspective, we haven't told our residents what will be expected of them. . . . These are major, significant changes.
"There's a federal law we need to abide by, and I don't want someone showing up at the airport and being told you cannot get on a plane," Griffo said.
He and the bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), blame the Cuomo administration's DMV for failing to warn New Yorkers about the federal change as they obtain or renew licenses for another eight years. DMV rules allow drivers to upgrade to an enhanced license at any time.
The Republicans blame Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's former DMV commissioner, Barbara Fiala. She is running for the open State Senate seat in the Binghamton area in a special election this year. If Fiala, a Democrat, wins, she would threaten the Republicans' razor-thin majority and control of the Senate. Cuomo endorsed her in July.
But Croci said much more is at stake. "I am concerned about the people in our state illegally without IDs seeking to do us harm," he said. "Whatever the oversight was, it needs to be corrected."