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Brewing Showdown Over Washington Driver Licensing Could Trip Up Airline Fliers

Department of Homeland Security
File photo. Regular driver's licenses from Oregon and Washington will no longer be acceptable ID to board a commercial flight after January 2018.

Washington state is moving toward a showdown like Oregon went through two years ago about issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Washington legislators were warned Monday that current state Department of Licensing policy to not check for legal residency could lead to trouble for everyone at the airport in just over a year.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has set deadlines for states to make their driver's licenses more secure. Without upgrades, a regular driver's license from Washington, Oregon, California and some other states will no longer be acceptable ID to board a commercial flight after January 2018.

Republican State Sen. Don Benton said legislators need to authorize Washington state licensing examiners to ask for proof of legal U.S. residency.

"We put the rest of the country at risk because we do not secure our government ID,” Benton said.

A legislative trial balloon would create separate tiers of driver's licenses, including one stamped as not valid "for federal purposes" for people who can't prove legal status. The chair of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs complained such an ID would be like a "scarlet letter" and would invite discrimination.

"We might see reopened avenues of discrimination," Andrés Mantilla told the state Senate Transportation Committee on Monday. "In our opinion, (it) drives workers back into the shadows many of which are working in the agricultural industry which keeps this state afloat."

Oregon DMV offices verify the legal residency status of license applicants.

Oregon voters soundly rejected the idea of issuing alternative driver's licenses and state identification cards to undocumented immigrants in 2014 when the issue was placed on the ballot via a citizen referendum.

Time to get real on REAL ID

All three Northwestern states -- and more than a dozen others -- initially rebelled against the federal mandate known as the REAL ID Act, approved by Congress in 2005. But over the past decade, the states have of their own volition modernized licensing procedures to prevent fraud and verify identities better.

In the early going, DHS gave repeated compliance extensions to recalcitrant states. But now federal agencies are tightening the screws.

Military installations in the Pacific Northwest, the Hanford Nuclear Site, Idaho National Laboratory and some other sensitive federal facilities have already begun to demand REAL ID-compliant identification or presentation of a second form of identification. Alternative forms of identification that are presently REAL ID-compliant include passports, U.S. military ID, federally-recognized tribal photo IDs or airline or airport-issued ID.

Oregon recently received a limited extension from DHS, which allows Oregonians to use their driver's licenses to enter federal buildings through at least June 2017. That extension was granted to give Oregon lawmakers time to approve and fund the remaining needed security and identity verification upgrades -- issues which mainly have to do with data storage.

At a legislative work session in Olympia Monday, airline and airport executives pleaded with state senators to act expeditiously to prevent travel disruptions in January 2018.

"On a given day, we may be faced with turning away thousands of passengers," Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Director of Aviation Security Wendy Reiter warned. "This would have major spillover impacts to all those other passengers who would be in line with them. Their fellow passengers - compliant identification or no - would be delayed on their progress to the gate."

Since 2008, Washington state has issued an "Enhanced Driver License" to applicants who provide extra documentation of identity and U.S. citizenship. These licenses exceed REAL ID requirements and would permit unhindered domestic air travel.

Spokane International Airport CEO Larry Krauter complained though that the cost of getting an enhanced driver license, which exceeds $100, "is at a price point that is out of reach" of the average Washingtonian.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.