Becoming A Documented Arizonan
July 16, 2012

AZ DOT
A sample Arizona driver license shown on the AZ Department of Transportation website.

PHOENIX -- I recently moved from Las Vegas to work out of KJZZ in Phoenix, and one of my first errands in Arizona was a stop at a Motor Vehicle Division office in Mesa. After waiting in a long line and shuffling between counters, I eventually emerged triumphantly with my very own Grand Canyon-themed driver's license in hand.

As is typical for anyone moving to a new state, that new license was my first step toward feeling like a real Arizonan. But in this state, a driver's license has become a proxy for much more than just eligibility to drive.

When law enforcement here check for immigration status, Arizonans who have a driver's license will most likely use that to prove their legal status. 

When Arizona voter go to the polls, most will present a driver's license to fulfill a state requirement to show photo ID before voting. State officials are currently defending in court a separate provision of the same law that requires would-be voters in the state to present some evidence of citizenship - most typically a driver's license - when they fill out a state voter registration form.

A driver's license is THE major form of accepted identification, but still an estimated ten percent of citizen adults in this country don't have either a license or a state-issued photo ID.

And that number could be on the rise.

The share of young adults and teens who have driver's licenses has declined over the last few decades, according to a University of Michigan study. In 1983, 92 percent of Americans in their early 20s had licenses, according to the study. Twenty-five years later, that number fell 10 percent.

Civil rights advocates have argued that the elderly, minorities, low-income people and students are the least likely to have a state-issued photo ID. That's probably because those groups are more likely than others to have trouble accessing the required documents or the flexibility in their schedules to spend time at the MVD during business hours.

The requirements for getting a license or state ID varies between states. So do the checks that states use to verify identity and prevent driver's license fraud.

Last year, I chronicled my experience getting a driver's license in Nevada, a state that is a leader in meeting the federal security benchmarks for driver's licenses under the REAL ID Act. On the other end of the spectrum is New Mexico, where my colleague Mónica Ortiz Uribe has reported on the debate over a controversial state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses. (Recently Mónica reported that state officials there are now ferreting out forged documents to prevent out-of-state immigrants from posing as New Mexico residents).

Given the emphasis on documentation here in Arizona, I was curious to see how rigorous the procedure to get a license would be. While Arizona's process isn't lax, it seemed to involve a few less checks than in Nevada.

In Nevada, I presented a passport, old license and Social Security card. But the MVD here in Arizona was content with just the first two documents, and only asked for my Social Security number, rather than the card itself. The MVD here didn't run my photo through facial recognition software to ensure I wasn't already in the system under a different name, even though a Center for Immigration Studies report shows that check for identity fraud is standard protocol in most other states.

At the end of the process, the MVD staff printed my license right there, and I left with my new license in my wallet. Yet in Nevada and about half of all states, licenses are printed at off-site locations and then mailed out later to discourage fraud.

Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Harold Sanders informed me that Arizona is working toward meeting the federal REAL ID requirements, which means Arizona's process for issuing licenses is due to change a bit in the coming years.

But I am not likely to personally observe any of those developments at the MVD anytime soon. My new Arizona license is valid until 2047.

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