A Study in Green:
My national I.D. card, your civil liberties

February 2002


Late last September, amid a newfound preoccupation with “homeland security,” our nation’s leaders publicly discussed the possibility of issuing national identity cards to U.S. residents. The proposal has since stalled, but for roughly 13 million of U.S. who are permanent legal immigrants its underlying premise is our daily reality. At all times, I am required by law to carry this, my Alien Registration Receipt Card (or “Green Card”). Unlike a driver’s license, this Green Card does not allow me simply to engage in some specific activity; rather, my possession of it is a precondition for my mere presence in the country. As would be the case with a national I.D., the card’s purpose is quite explicitly to monitor me, and it serves, furthermore, as a visible badge of the constriction of my civil liberties. If you are curious to know what your rights may come to look like in twenty-first-century America, ask me; in many respects, I already live there.


Not until World War II were resident aliens required to register with the government; and not until 1952, in the aftermath of the anti-Communist Internal Security Act, were they required to carry these cards (which were, at the time, green). Today my own card offers a bewildering wealth of detail, including this machine-readable text, which serves as a database key to my I.N.S. file. With records on my family, my finances, my educational history, previous jobs, and past addresses, this file is far more comprehensive than any the government yet compiles on the typical citizen. But just as federal agents relied on I.N.S. files to locate thousands of male Arab immigrants in November, they may, in the future, be able to use national I.D. files to track you down, as part of some group—racial, social, or political—with whom they would like to chat.


Under a national I.D. system, your fingerprint might reside in a central database, just as mine does today. The database would also store a picture of your face, which could prove useful: at least two U.S. airports are now testing face-scanning technology (already widely used by Las Vegas casinos) to identify undesirables, and more airports—as well as other official checkpoints—may soon join them. Federal agencies are making an effort to link their criminal databases, and such integration would certainly benefit a national I.D. system. Given the amorphousness of the terrorist threat, the F.B.I.’s DNA database, which currently stores genetic material from over 600,000 felons, might make room for you, and in so doing append your “biological fingerprint” to your I.D. file. And surely ECHELON—the cross-governmental surveillance network, led by our National Security Agency, that intercepts a wide range of communications from satellite feeds—has happened across some of your e-mails by now; these, too, could be added to your file.


This category, Å’IR6,’ means that I obtained my Green Card by marrying a U.S. citizen. My wife and I may be equal partners in matrimony, but we are decidedly unequal in the eyes of U.S. law. Even before September 11, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, warrants to search my property could have been issued in secret. When questioned, I would have had a right to a lawyer, but none would have been provided for me. I could have been detained for two days without cause. Today, of course, a run-in with the law could prove far more perilous. I could be investigated merely for making statements in support of “terrorist organizations.” Were I a candidate for military tribunal, I could be detained indefinitely; my trial (and all evidence in it) could be kept secret, as could my deportation—even my execution. But at least I might die in good company: although the Bush administration has assured the nation that the tribunals would apply only to foreign nationals, the Supreme Court decision it cites to justify the constitutionality of such tribunals (1942’s Ex parte Quirin) explicitly condones them for citizens as well.


Into this metallic field, festooned with microscopic portraits of the Presidents, information about me has been laser-etched. Green Cards are designed to frustrate forgers, yet counterfeit Green Cards abound; in Tijuana, one can be had for $500, little more than is required to obtain a real one. Fraud also bedevils Social Security numbers (six of the Sept. 11 hijackers had fraudulent ones) and driver’s licenses (four had them), and would surely plague a national I.D. too. Thus the I.D. would fail, in the end, to allay our fears, just as this card failed to defuse anti-Communist fears during the Cold War. Given that John Ashcroft wants to allow the F.B.I. once again to spy on U.S. groups, his recent warning to Congress—that our enemies have been trained “to use America’s freedom as a weapon against us”—is an ominous echo of 1947, when J. Edgar Hoover cautioned that “American progress . . . is being adopted as window dressing by the Communists to conceal their true aims,” Hoover later used this logic to justify surveillance of such traitors as Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King, Jr.


That a person would need a card to “authorize” him or her to work and reside in the United States would have seemed odd to our nation’s founders, but today this fact is, for the most part, accepted. More disturbing, though, is the alacrity with which our government has taken to representing itself, even to citizens, as a granter of the people’s rights rather than as a repository of their will—as in Tom Ridge’s remark that “Liberty is the most precious gift we offer our citizens.” Anti-immigrant sentiment today is, as it was in other times of national crisis, a useful tool for those whose true goal is to limit the liberty of all Americans. The freedoms wrested from newcomers today are likely the same that citizens themselves will be asked tomorrow to “sacrifice.” We immigrants are, as usual, a test market.

See it on the Harper’s site…

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