The Racist Origins of the Real ID Act

Austin, TX, USA – July 31, 2021: A young Black woman demonstrator at a rally at the Capitol protests voting rights limitations contained in bills written by Republicans in the state legislature (Shutterstock/ Vic Hinterlang)

As of May 2023, a passport or driver’s license which proves legal residence in the U.S. will be needed to board a domestic flight, a change that will further impede the mobility of undocumented persons. This is the date by which the federal government has given people to obtain a “Real ID,” a new form of identification that states must now issue in accordance with federal regulations. The Real ID Act –which was made law in 2005 but is just now coming into full implementation–compels states to abide by more stringent federal standards in issuing state driver’s licenses. One of the new requirements is the verification of legal residency status; applicants must prove U.S. citizenship, lawful permanent residency, or temporary lawful status in the U.S. to obtain a Real ID. Soon, these new identifications will be required to do things such as enter federal facilities or board domestic flights.

Various privacy advocates and civil rights organizations have opposed the Real ID Act. As they point out, it effectively turns the driver’s license into a form of national ID and functions to massively expand immigration enforcement into state agencies. As the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review argues, Real ID “poses a major threat to people living in the United States without legal status.” The Real ID Act also establishes a network of interlinking databases accessible to the federal government— an action that constitutes a privacy risk, especially for those living with irregular or precarious legal status. While people still might be able to board a flight with their passport, as the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has noted, the use of the Real ID will likely eventually be expanded to other kinds of transactions, like receiving government benefits and applying for a job. In the meantime, it is sure to further constrain the movement of undocumented persons in the U.S. and add an additional layer of fear and anxiety to their everyday lives and mobility.

The Real ID Act is but one of various recent legislative and law enforcement efforts to control and surveil the mobility of undocumented people and to expand federal immigration enforcement into state and local agencies and interactions. In thinking about these troubling efforts and the devastating effects they have on the lives of those living in the U.S. without legal status, it is important to revisit Black studies scholarship, which shows that the history of identification documents and their corresponding registries in the U.S. have their origins in the control and surveillance of Black mobility, rooted firmly in the violence of slavery and its afterlives. Engaging this scholarship is crucial for understanding that the Real ID exists within a much longer genealogy of identification documents and registries in the United States, which, since the very beginning of the country’s history, have been intertwined with racism and efforts to control the movement of people of color. This includes a history of forced movement but also efforts to suppress mobility.

As the work of scholars such as Simone Browne, Vanessa Holden, and Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor have explored, some of the first iterations of state issued IDs and registries can be traced to efforts to surveil the lives and movements of Black people living in colonial and antebellum America.

Simone Browne’s 2015 book Dark Matters looks at how some of the earliest tools of surveillance employed in the United States—what she refers to as the “technology of printed text” which includes things like identification documents and registries—were developed to control and surveil Black mobility. One of the earliest such technologies she identifies is the Book of Negroes, a document that lists 3,000 Black passengers on board over 200 ships that in 1783 evacuated formerly enslaved people from colonial New York following the War of Independence, primarily to Canada. As Browne argues, the Book of Negroes is the first government-issued document to authorize international travel—in essence, an early passport. For Browne, an examination of the Book of Negroes “offers a historicizing of the ways in which the tracking, accounting, and identification of the racial body, and in particular the black body and black social life, form an important, but often absented, part of the genealogy of the passport.”

Black studies scholarship has also examined how slave passes, state vagrancy laws, and ‘free papers’ brought about early forms of state identification and registries intended to control Black mobility. Historian Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor work also looks at various kinds of anti-Black surveillance documents used in antebellum America to “mark people of color in the United States as internal foreigners” and surveil and impede Black mobility. Perhaps the earliest form of these IDs were slave passes, documents signed by slaveholders that enslaved persons were required to carry to move beyond the plantation or other mandated workplaces.

Historian Vanessa Holden looks at how vagrancy laws in 18th century Virginia that required free African Americans to annually register with county officials were used to surveil and control the movement of free Black people living in the Commonwealth. In 1793 a law was passed in Virginia prohibiting free people of color from living or traveling outside of the counties where they were registered as free persons. As Holden’s 2021 book Surviving Southampton argues, these measures were implemented partly because white people feared the mobility of free Black persons would foster support of the rebellion. As Stordeur Pryor argues, ‘free papers’ were important, though unreliable, forms of identification for free Black people throughout the U.S.— needed to prove one was not-enslaved in the South, not fugitive in the North, and often required to cross state borders. While these documents were ostensibly mandated to ‘protect’ free Black people insofar as they documented their free status, they were ultimately used primarily to surveil and restrict the mobility of these populations and “served as a constant reminder that freedom of mobility and citizenship were elusive rights.”

As many have noted, referring to those living in the United States without legal residency status or citizenship as ‘undocumented’ is a bit of a misnomer. These individuals are often, in fact, hyperdocumented both insofar as they have carefully compiled enormous archives of paperwork and achievements in an effort to plead their case for legalization but also because the U.S. government has gone through such extensive efforts to surveil, police, register, and track their movements. As these efforts expand, it is important to continue to read and engage with Black studies scholarship that examines the genealogies of identification documents and their corresponding databases in the United States and the ways in which they are bound to histories of racist surveillance and mobility control. The goal of engaging this scholarship is not to argue slavery and its afterlives are analogous with contemporary immigration enforcement but rather to understand that surveillance technologies that might seem innocuous— like a new and ‘improved’ driver’s license—are in fact intertwined with violent practices of racialized mobility control, both past and present.

Moreover, it is important not to position efforts to control and surveil Black mobility as firmly in the past. Wide-spread white supremacy and its corresponding laws and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. still actively work to control, surveil, harass, and impede Black mobility. Whether it be through police pullovers, stop and frisk policies, or racists vigilante responses to Black people simply moving about in their everyday lives—IDs and law enforcement registries still form part of a larger state apparatus that works to surveil Black mobility and endanger Black lives. As Brooke Bosley puts it, we live in a world that “constantly views mobility as a dangerous form of expression of Black folk.” Further, surveillance and policing technologies developed more recently continue to take their origins in anti-Black law enforcement practices. As Brian Jefferson work shows, racist policing practices and interoperable computer database systems developed in tandem. Which is to say, the very technology that now makes it possible for the Real ID Act to build and expand a network of interlinking state databases accessible to the federal government was advanced in the second half of the 20th century as an integral part of racist and decidedly anti-Black urban policing practices in the U.S.

Importantly, the scholarship of Browne, Holden, Stordeur Pryor, Bosley, and Jefferson also explores how Black people have and continue to collectively resist, evade, and contest anti-Black surveillance and mobility control practices. Perhaps bringing this important intellectual and political history of resistance into conversation with contemporary struggles against the surveillance of those made to live in the U.S. without legal status can help inform and inspire strategies to fight back against anti-immigrant technologies like the Real ID.

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Bea Abbott

Bea Abbott is a graduate student in Geography at the University of Kentucky. Before returning to school, she worked as a researcher for the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (2016-2021) and Last Rights Project (2020-2021) on human rights investigations related to migrant disappearance. Currently, her research is interested in the intersections of migration, visual culture, and science and technology studies.

Comments on “The Racist Origins of the Real ID Act

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    Thank you for bringing more perspective too this issue. I never understood the true purpose of a Real ID until now. What we were being told made no sense.

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