As a young girl in Poland, Ursula Freer escaped Nazi forces from the West and Soviets from the East. Her family eventually emigrated after the war to Chicago, where Freer took English classes at night while working a string of jobs during the day. She grew up, got married, divorced and remarried, and fell in with the countercultural crowd. She moved all over the country until finally settling down in the Santa Fe area in 1994, and now sells art she makes with Photoshop.
She became a naturalized citizen in 1971; the internet wasn't around yet, and her naturalization papers weren't digitized. Over 40 years later, they still were not, as she discovered when she recently tried to renew her driver's license here. She had the original document, but a worker at a Motor Vehicle Division branch told her it could be a fake because they couldn't locate it in an electronic archive.
"I just wanted to renew my license that I had for 22 years," she tells SFR. After two trips, she still didn't have any license at all. "I just was stunned because I didn't have a license for three weeks. And my daughter, who lives in Cincinnati, she started calling around, and finally they told her, 'Well, they should have given her a temporary license.'"
Freer later received a letter informing her that her naturalization papers had been located. But driving without a license for weeks and being at the mercy of the immigration bureaucracy spooked her.
"There was no explanation; just, 'We can't find the naturalization papers,'" she says. "I was stunned. I was speechless. It was like being back in Europe during the war."
The state does not keep records of people who have had similar but hard-to-track trouble. In April, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that between January and early April, 1,412 people statewide had filed name-change applications in New Mexico courts, a sharp rise from the year before and believed to correspond with the state's new enforcement of stringent requirements for obtaining forms of state identification that comply with the federal REAL ID Act. Because such identification requires that people present primary source documentation to confirm their identities, those who've lived their lives using and signing a name other than the one on their birth certificates have had to legally change their names.
Elderly folks who haven't handled their birth certificates or naturalization paperwork in a very long time are especially vulnerable to the headaches of obtaining REAL ID-compliant identification. Peter Simonson, the executive director of New Mexico's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says he and others foresaw the issue while lobbying against the federal bill before its 2005 passage.
The rationale to require primary documentation of one's birth, as well as legal status and place of residence, was "predicated on the assumption that, by making access to identification more challenging, that you figure out the sort out people who are using falsified forms of ID and might have malicious intentions in the country," Simonson tells SFR. "But all of this, that entire paradigm, is based on the misguided assumption that you can protect our country through identity-based forms of security."
This is misguided, he says, because people intent on forging their identification have and continue to figure out ways to get around strict requirements. There have been cases in other states where people have, for example, conspired with motor vehicle department employees to obtain false IDs. Having a national ID for all citizens, he says, is the kind of Big Brother-esque initative that can quickly get out of hand. For average people like Freer, who just want to drive down the street to the grocery store, trying to obtain a REAL ID-compliant identification can result in expensive filing fees and advertisements in newspapers (if they want to change their names), missed work days and enduring the unhelpful stoicism of MVD employees who say their instructions are coming up from on high.
That's also what happened to John Woodie, a 76-year-old who did not succeed in obtaining a renewed license until four trips later. By luck, he discovered his birth certificate in a baby book his aunt maintained for decades. He wasn't even aware he had one, since he'd been delivered at home in a rural area.
"They wanted my car registration, they wanted to see my old driver's license," says Woodie, who works as a registered financial agent. "My army discharge papers, that wasn't good enough. I showed them my passport, it wasn't good enough; it was expired." He drove around with an expired license for two months until the state finally gave him a temporary one.
Woodie says he has several friends experiencing similar problems. "They were all in their late 60's, they were all having trouble," he says.
Ben Cloutier, a spokesman for the Tax and Revenue department, which oversees offices that produce and dispense state IDs, did not answer whether the department was attempting to make the process smoother for the elderly following reports of difficulty.
On a recent day outside the MVD Express on St. Michael's Drive, Issah Abdallah, a doctoral student from Ghana currently studying at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, is there to have his license renewed. As an international student, he had to provide his passport and two proofs of residence for renewal, for which he's providing bank statements and an insurance card.
"I actually came here before, and I got to know the documents, and I went to build those documents for my renewal of license," he says, explaining that he had to coordinate with his insurance company to change his address on his card from a PO box to his physical address.
"It has been easy, very very easy," he says.
It should be easy for non-PhD students, too.