Bill Keller of the New York Times has a column today that begins with mention of the Arizona immigration control law and the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the part of it that allows the police to check the papers of persons they suspect may be undocumented foreigners. The risks of brazen ethnic/racial profiling are manifest
While we wait for this to play out, let’s turn our attention to another aspect of the so-called “show me your papers” law: Show me WHAT papers? What documents are you supposed to have always on hand to convince police that you are legit?
Welcome to an American paradox. This country, unlike many other developed democracies, does not require a national identification card, because the same electorate that is so afraid America is being overrun by illegal aliens also fears that we are one short step away from becoming a police state.
Keller sensibly advocates a national identity card as a solution to the conundrum, though understands
that the idea of a national ID comes with some chilling history, which is why it has been opposed by activists on the right and left — by the libertarian Cato Institute and the A.C.L.U., by People for the American Way and the American Conservative Union. Opponents associate national identification cards with the Nazi roundups, the racial sorting of apartheid South Africa, the evils of the Soviet empire. Civil rights groups see in a national ID — especially one that might be required for admission to the voting booth — a shadow of the poll taxes and literacy tests used to deter black voters in the Jim Crow South. More recently, accounts of flawed watch-list databases and rampant identity theft feed fears for our privacy. The most potent argument against an ID is that the government — or some hacker — might access your information and use it to mess with your life.
I have long been mystified by the American hang-up over the idea of a national ID card, which, as just about every minimally informed person is aware, exists not only in totalitarian dictatorships but in almost all the world’s democracies. In Europe national ID cards are utterly uncontroversial and hardly make the continent politically less free. There are also some misconceptions on the matter. In France, where the state is robust, the national ID is in fact not obligatory. One is not legally required to have one, let alone carry it on one’s person at all times. Practically every Frenchman and woman has the national ID (Carte nationale d’identité, CNI), mainly for the convenience, as there are occasions in one’s daily life when one needs to produce an ID (mainly in making payments with debit cards or checks; and, to reassure paranoiacs, one’s CNI number—which no one commits to memory and is used for no particular purpose—does not end up in some data base that can be hacked). The CNI is obtained at one’s mairie (town hall) upon request—with submission of birth certificate and maybe further proof of citizenship—and at any age. It is simply a facility offered by the state. French citizens carry the CNI the way Americans do drivers licenses, and the CNI contains no more vital information than the latter (see above specimen). And it is most useful when travelling around Europe (including in the Schengen zone). So what’s the big deal?
On matter of police ID checks, which I’ve written about: The law in France states that the police may request the ID of anyone whom they suspect may be about to violate the law or who poses a “threat to public order” (or of anyone in a designated area where public order is being disturbed, e.g. a riot zone). The police are not legally allowed to profile but they do anyway; they can basically control anyone they please (but then, this is the case in the US too). Re suspected undocumented foreigners, the police can base their control on “signes objectifs d’extranéité“—a lovely legalism that is not precisely defined but is, legally speaking, not to include physical appearance or the speaking of a foreign language in public … For citizens, several types of ID are acceptable, of which the CNI is only one. If a person controlled does not have any ID on his or her person, than s/he may be taken to the police station and held there for a maximum of four hours while his or her identity is verified. That’s it. So what’s the big deal?
On voting: A voter in France has to produce an ID at the polling station and which is matched against his or her name in the ledger of registered voters. I have been a polling station assesseur in every election round since 2007, i.e. 15 times, so have controlled countless IDs. Most people show the CNI, some their passport or drivers license. Only once do I remember a voter not having a valid ID on her (she only had a student ID, which is not acceptable in this instance), so was turned away. She should have remembered her CNI (or passport or drivers license). She was an isolated case. 99.99% of French citizens who show up at the polling station to vote have a valid ID. So what’s the big deal?
It seems totally normal to me that voters should produce a valid ID at the polling station. On this issue, I don’t follow the Democrats in their hysterical objections to Republican-driven legislation on this (however suspect or dishonorable the GOP’s motives may be). A proper Democratic response should be to say, okay, let’s have Congress pass a law mandating that drivers licenses contain citizenship or immigration status information; and for persons who don’t drive, that the states issue state ID cards upon request and that contain one’s citizenship info. This would make life so much easier for Americans: for citizens, employees, employers, legal immigrants, and so on. Really, what’s the big deal?
UPDATE: This article in TNR, on voting in South Carolina, has caused a modification in my position. Voter ID laws in the US should be resolutely opposed unless and until obtaining state IDs is made as easy and cost-free as in France. (February 27, 2013)