“May I see some identification, please?” asked a retail clerk in my home town Seattle taking my check. I said certainly and handed the sales woman my Hong Kong identity card. She looked at it blankly for a moment then said, “Can I see some other kind of identification?”
Sometimes when I’m feeling cranky or mischievous, I hand over my Hong Kong ID card when I need to produce some kind of identification. Why not? It is a perfectly valid document. It has my photograph on it. I know of no law that specifies that my state driver’s license has become a national ID card. At least not yet.
The United States is groping towards a national ID card system, compelled both by worries about security in an age of terrorism and the need to control immigration. In doing so it could learn some lessons from Hong Kong.
In the U. S. the driver’s license, issued by individual states, has become a de facto identity card. It is used more for cashing checks and opening bank accounts to getting on aircraft even for domestic flights.
Call me too literal-minded, but a driver’s license is for driving. Identity verification is something else. Why should citizenship be confused with a demonstrated ability navigate through heavy traffic without causing an accident?
I was reminded of the need for such a card by the controversy over Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law. That state has, if nothing else, put the cart before the horse. Before the police can check on somebody’s “papers” one needs to settle on what “papers” a person should be required to carry.
The U.S. clearly has a need for some kind of identification card to cash checks, to board airplanes, even to enter a federal building to pick up tax forms. But Americans instinctively balk at the idea of having to carry around a national identity card. Since strictly speaking nobody actually has to have a driver’s license, we kid ourselves into thinking it is still voluntary.
Before returning to the U.S., I lived for sixteen years in Hong Kong, where everybody over a certain age must obtain an ID card and carry it with him or her at all times. I never considered this a serious infringement on my freedom, although there certainly was a hassle having to obtain one (and to replace one when lost.)
The Hong Kong police can and do stop people at random and ask them to produce their ID cards. It is not uncommon on the streets to see a couple policemen huddled around a young Chinese man inspecting his ID. That this involves profiling is undeniable. In my sixteen years there, I never once was asked by a policeman to produce my card. It was assumed that being a Westerner I had entered on a valid work permit.
Of course, I had to produce my ID, or at least provide the number on it, numerous times during the ordinary course of living, from opening a bank account to applying for a job to voting.
It would be far better to follow Hong Kong’s example and create a national card, probably issued through the Department of Homeland Security. It would lift a burden from state motor vehicle authorities that they were never intended or are equipped to shoulder.
The advantage that the ID card has over a driver’s license, social security card or any of the other make-shift sources of identification now in use is that they can be coded to show at a glance a person’s status: citizen, permanent resident, foreign student, guest worker.
In Hong Kong, ID cards are issued to everyone, whether or not they are born there, have become permanent residents or are on short-term work contracts such as the tens of thousands of domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines. In the same way, a national identity card is also a requisite if America is to have any kind of orderly guest-worker program.
A standardized, secure national ID card issued by the federal government is essential for controlling immigration into the U.S. In short: it’s the way it’s done. Anybody who thinks a national ID card is un-American might have a valid point. But then he should stop complaining about “securing our borders.”
Todd Crowell worked as a Senior Writer for Asiaweek in Hong Kong before returning to the U.S.