National Identification Cards: Legal Issues
CRS Report for Congress
National Identification Cards: Legal Issues
Alison M. Smith
American Law Division
In the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, renewed debate has arisen
regarding the efficacy and legal implications of a national identification card, a form of
identification that would be something more comprehensive than a driver’s license, a
Social Security card or a passport. Such debate has centered around finding the
appropriate balance between maintaining personal freedom and protecting national
security. Proponents contend that a card using “biometric” surveillance technologies
such as electronic retinal scans or fingerprints could help reduce and/or track illegal
immigrants or potential terrorists. Conversely, opponents assert that such a card could
infringe upon civil liberties with minimal impact on reducing terrorism. This report will
briefly summarize the policy arguments related to and legal implications of a national
identification card. The report will be updated as developments warrant.
The idea of a national identification system with centralized repositories and tracking
capabilities has long stirred controversy. The merits of a comprehensive national12
identification system have been debated in relation to health care, gun control, and
immigration proposals.3 Arguments over a national identification card seek to balance
1 See generally, William H. Minor, “Identity Cards and Databases in Health Care: The Need for
Federal Privacy Protections,” 28 COLUM. J.L. & SOC. PROBS. 253,273 (1995) (quoting public
statement of Rep. Armey that “[w]e didn’t beat back the administration’s plan to issue us all
‘health security cards’ only to have Congress adopt an I.D. card to track down immigrants.”)
2 In 1989, a Justice Department task force included a national identity card among options for
controlling the proliferation of guns. The proposed card would have been issued to all citizens
and would have allowed access to criminal records. Richard Thornburg, then-Attorney General,
rejected the identity card proposal. A Justice Department spokesman said at the time that
Thornburg viewed such a card as “an infringement on rights of Americans.” Ann Debroy,
“Thornburgh Rules Out Two Gun-Control Options: Attorney General Objects to Registration
Card for Gun Owners, National Identification Card,” Wash. Post, June 29, 1989 at A41.
3 In 1976, Congress added the following language to the Immigration Reform and Control Act
of 1976: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize, directly or indirectly, the
issuance or use of national identification cards or the establishment of a national identificationth
card.” A number of bills have been introduced in the 107 Congress to aid in the tracking of
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personal freedom and national security. Some civil liberties groups and privacy
advocates oppose a national identity scheme, citing the loss of privacy and fear of
misuse.4 In addition, some argue that a national identification card is unnecessary as
citizens already have de facto identification cards in the form of social security cards and
driver’s licenses or state identification cards, which could be used as national
identification cards with modification.5
Conversely, advocates of a national identification system assert that such a system
would serve as an invaluable tool to track the movement of known or potential terrorists,
thus thwarting a terrorist attack. Moreover, such a system would facilitate tracking of
immigrants migrating in and out of the United States. A national identification system
might facilitate more accurate accountability of the number of immigrants in this country.
Constitutional and Legal Issues
Apparently, Congress could permissibly legislate a national identification card under
a number of its powers enumerated in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. For
example, Congress has plenary power over naturalization and citizenship.6 Assuming that
a national identification system were instituted to track aliens, the enactment of such a
system would appear to fall within Congress’ authority.
Also, under the commerce clause, Congress may regulate persons or things in, as
well as those activities having a substantial relationship to interstate commerce.7
Assuming that the purpose of a national identification system would be to facilitate better
security on instrumentalities of interstate and international travel, such a system would
appear to be sufficiently related to an activity in interstate commerce to fall within
Congress’ commerce clause authority.
4 Adam Thierer, “National ID Cards: New Technologies, Same Bad Idea,” TechKnowledge 21
(September 28, 2001). This article can be obtained at [http://www.cato.org/tech/tk/010928-
5 See, Does America Need A National Identifier: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on
Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations, Committee onthst
House Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, 107 Cong. 1 Sess. (2001)
(testimony of Jonathan Turley); see also Stephanie Simon, “Response to Terror,” Los Angeles
Times (September 28, 2001) (discussing the driver’s license as a national identification card
lacking national standards). The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
(AAMVA) has advocated a national standard for state drivers’ licenses. The proposed standards
include both uniform identification requirements for the card holder, including name, address and
personal characteristics, and uniform technology standards for additional data storage on the card,
such as bar codes and optical memory. See, Alan Gathright, “Biometric Technology Raises
Hopes, Fears, and Skepticism,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 2001; see also Robert O’
Harow Jr, “States Devising Plan for High-Tech National Identification Cards,” Wash. Post
(November 3, 2001) pg. A10.
6 U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 4.
7 U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3; United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 558-559 (1995) (citations
In addition, Article 1, Section 8, Clause1 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to
use federal monies to provide for the common defense and the general welfare. As such,
Congress could apparently legislate a national identification card by providing funds to
states and attaching conditions to these funds without violating the Constitution due to the
voluntary nature of states’ participation.8 States and localities would remain free to reject
the federal monies; but if accepted, they would be taken subject to the conditions imposed
While Congress would apparently have the authority to enact a national identification
system, constitutional and legal concerns could presumably arise in the implementation
and enforcement of such a system.10 For instance, implementation, and enforcement of
such a system could conceivably implicate privacy rights as well as the right to travel.
“[F]reedom to travel throughout the United States has long been recognized as a
basic right under the Constitution.”11 A law implicates the right to travel when it actually
deters such travel, or when impeding travel is its primary objective.12 A law that infringes
the right to travel is subject to strict scrutiny by the courts,13 under which a compelling
state interest must be shown and the government’s purpose “cannot be pursued by means
that broadly stifle fundamental personal liberties when the end can be more narrowly
achieved.”14 Thus, the question whether a national identification system would
impermissibly infringe upon the right to travel, would ultimately depend upon the nature
and effect of the regulatory scheme adopted. Where the scheme as implemented actually
deters the ability to travel, a reviewing court would likely inquire into the objective
underlying the system to determine whether it is sufficiently “compelling” to justify the
8 South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987).
10 As there are few details on the contents, implementation or enforcement of a national
identification system, it is difficult at present to provide specific assessments of the constitutional
roadblocks to such a system.
11 Saenz v. Roe, 526 U.S. 489 (1999) (emphasizing that the right to travel is a “virtually
unconditional personal right” under our Constitution); see Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S.
618,631 (1969) (noting that the Constitution does not explicitly mention the right to travel
because such “a right so elementary was conceived from the beginning to be a necessary
concomitant of the stronger Union the Constitution created.”); United States v. Guest, 383 U.S.
745,758 (1966); Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116, 125 (1958) (stating that “the right to travel is part
of the ‘liberty’ of which the citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifthth
Amendment.”); Cramer v. Skinner, 931 F.2d 1020, 1029 (5 Cir. 1991) (“Although no clause in
the Constitution specifically provides a right to interstate travel, the Supreme Court has inferred
this right from various constitutional provisions and from the structure of the federal system
12 Attorney Gen. Of New York v. Soto-Lopez, 476 U.S. 898, 903 (1986).
14 Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479, 488 (1960).
restriction on travel. In addition, the court will examine the availability of means less
restrictive on travel that could be utilized to accomplish the government’s objectives.15
Another potential problem could exist with the collection and dissemination of
information in a national identification system. Depending on the type of information
contained on a national identification card, privacy concerns can be raised. For example,
a national identification card which contained an individual’s name, date of birth, sex,
height, weight and fingerprint or other biometric identifier may be less likely to raise
privacy concerns than a card which also contained blood type, genetic or medical
Although the Constitution does not expressly provide for a right to privacy, the
Supreme Court has found some right to informational privacy.16 However, these rights
are limited by judicial deference to the government’s need to acquire the information and
by the fact that a constitutional challenge would be limited to state action. As a practical
matter, this would mean that federal or state collections of information may receive some
constitutional and or statutory17 protection but the collection and use of information by
private organizations would not be covered.18
No bills were introduced in the 107th Congress which specifically proposed a
national identification card.19 However, several bills were proposed which in some form
authorized an identifier to facilitate the tracking of immigrants. For example, S. 1491
would have required the Secretary of State and the Commissioner of Immigration and
Naturalization to jointly establish and implement a fingerprint processing system under
which an alien’s fingerprints would be entered into an electronic database upon issuance
15 To avoid the constitutional concerns presented by a mandatory system, some have suggested
utilizing a voluntary national identification to be used by individuals traveling. See Alan M.
Dershowitz, “Why Fear National ID Cards?”, The New York Times; New York; October 13,
2001. The Air Transport Association recently announced support in the airline industry for a
“trusted traveler” card that would require a background check and national registry. Ricardo
Alonso-Zaldivar & Richard Simon, “Screening: Travel Ids Sought for Air Safety”, Los Angeles
Times, November 9, 2001, at A1.
16 See e.g. Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589 (1977).
17 The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, prohibits the disclosure of records maintained on
individuals by federal government agencies except under certain conditions. The Freedom of
Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. §§ 552 et seq., establishes a right of access to records
maintained by agencies within the executive branch of the federal government. It contains
several exemptions, including one for “personnel and medical files and similar files the
disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Both
the Privacy Act and FOIA may, then provide some privacy protections for genetic information
but they are limited in their scope and would not encompass information held by a private entity.
18 For a discussion of this issue see Gostin, “Genetic Privacy,” 23 J. of Law, Medicine & Ethics
19 Section 1514 of the 2002 Homeland Security Act (P.L. No. 107-296) states: “Nothing in this
Act shall be construed to authorize the development of a national identification system or card.”
of a visa to such alien.20 Moreover, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would
have been required to access the database upon the alien’s entry into the United States to
certify that the fingerprint of the individual seeking admission matches the fingerprint in
the database. The alien would be prohibited entry if the fingerprint did not match.
Similarly, H.R. 3052 would have amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to require a
nonimmigrant visa applicant to provide machine readable biometric identifiers (fingerprints or
handprints), which shall be checked against a database for criminal information prior to visa21
approval. H.R. 2276 and S. 1400 would have amended the Illegal Immigration Reform
and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and extend the deadlines for aliens to present
a border crossing card containing a biometric identifier matching the appropriate alien’s
biometric characteristics.22 In addition, S. 1489 provided for the sharing of information
between Federal departments, agencies and other entities with respect to aliens seeking
admission to the United States.23
20 S. 1491, 107th Cong. (2001).
21 H.R. 3052, 107th Cong. (2001).
22 H.R. 2276, 107th Cong. (2001); S. 1400, 107th Cong. (2001).
23 S. 1489, 107th Cong. (2001).