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D.C. Residents Keep Facing Questions About Identification

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A District of Columbia driver’s license should be enough identification to allow citizens to board a plane or enter a federal building, according to federal and local officials. So how come there’s so much confusion on the topic?  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., plans to meet with top Transportation Security Administration officials soon to clear up continuing problems D.C. residents face when trying to use their District-issued licenses for identification.  

The issue is coming to a head at the nation’s airports and as states attempt to comply with the REAL ID act, which aims to set minimum security standards for forms of identification that are used to enter federal buildings and travel in a federally regulated manner.  Norton, ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subommittee on Highways and Transit, spoke to TSA Administrator John Pistole about the issue in February in the wake of an incident over the Presidents Day holiday. During the incident in question, a TSA agent at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport questioned D.C. resident Ashley Brandt about her license as she waited in an airport security line to board a flight after a trip to the Grand Canyon State. Brandt was eventually allowed to board the plane, after the agent consulted a supervisor.  

Norton thought she set the record straight then, but the problem re-emerged last week when WFTV Washington correspondent Justin Gray was stopped at a TSA checkpoint in Orlando International Airport. A TSA agent did not recognize Gray’s D.C. license as a valid form of identification. Gray’s license is legal and up-to-date, but the TSA agent didn’t seem to know what the District of Columbia was and wanted to see a passport. Gray eventually was allowed to board his flight, and when he followed up with the TSA, the agency confirmed that a D.C. license was valid to travel on.  

“We may not be a State and we may not have a vote in Congress, but we pay taxes to the United States,” Norton said Tuesday in a statement. “At the very least, we should be recognized as part of the United States by our own Transportation Security Agency and by each and every State and locality.”  

One issue Norton has not discussed with the TSA, according to her office, is the 2005 law that could soon make some states’ credentials invalid for for domestic air travel. The REAL ID Act enacted a 9/11 commission recommendation that the federal government “set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.”  

Almost a decade later, the Department of Homeland Security has started phasing in enforcement of the REAL ID policy at its Washington, D.C., headquarters and some restricted areas in federal facilities. Enforcement goes into effect for entering federal buildings on Jan. 19, 2015. The DHS is still reviewing plans for enforcement of REAL ID at airports. According to a timeline provided by the agency, enforcement for flying domestically will likely take effect “no sooner than 2016.”  

The District’s Department of Motor Vehicles announced in late April it would start issuing new credentials on May 1 to comply with REAL ID. Some D.C. residents initially panicked, thinking they would immediately need to take a trip to the DMV to get renewed. The department later clarified that because the District is among the jurisdictions complying with the REAL ID law, any license or identification issued in D.C. will be accepted, even if it was issued before May 1.  

Vanessa Newton, a spokeswoman for the DMV, said Tuesday that credentials issued by the DMV should be valid. She directed questions about enforcement of the REAL ID act to federal agencies.  

A TSA press secretary confirmed that a valid D.C. driver’s license is an acceptable form of identification at all the agency’s checkpoints.  

“When issues arise at the checkpoint, TSA officers work to make sure facts are gathered and quickly resolved to avoid future confusion,” spokesman Ross Feinstein said in an email. He explained that officers are trained to identify fraudulent documents, which can potentially deter and detect individuals attempting to circumvent security. Feinstein referred REAL ID enforcement questions to DHS, which did not respond to an email inquiry.  

According to fact sheets on the law, a driver’s license or identification card from a noncompliant state may only be used in conjunction with a second form of identification, such as a passport, for boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft once enforcement begins.  

Because D.C. is complying with the new federal law, it remains unclear why residents are still being asked for a second form of identification. Norton is looking for a permanent fix. She said Tuesday that D.C. is “trying our best to become the 51st State, but being the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, should be enough.”

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