Name Variations in Proof Documents Create Major Headaches for Many Low-Income Driver’s License Applicants

Name Variations in Proof Documents Create Major Headaches for Many Low-Income Driver’s License Applicants

By Joan Friedland, NILC consultant and former managing attorney
May 11, 2017

If you are a woman, a person of color, or a low-wage worker, you may find it harder than others to get a driver’s license that meets the requirements of the REAL ID Act. That’s because, under the rules for REAL ID–compliant licenses, the name on the documents required to prove the DL applicant’s identity, citizenship or immigration status, Social Security number, and state residency must match, and any variations must be supported by proof of a name change.

The fact is that the names on many people’s identity documents contain spelling errors, or they are nicknames, or they are different in some other way from the name on their birth certificate. Many times, for example, this is because their name changed when they got married. Drivers whose documents contain such name-related discrepancies may face difficulties in obtaining a REAL ID–compliant license, even if they have had a license for years, and even when there’s no doubt that they are who they say they are. The process of getting the names to match can be arduous, frustrating, and expensive.

The 2005 REAL ID Act sets federal standards for state driver’s licenses. If states don’t meet those standards by October 1, 2020, their licenses won’t be acceptable as identification to board an airplane or enter many federal buildings. To date, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has certified 25 states and the District of Columbia as REAL ID–compliant, 26 states and territories have been granted an extension of time to comply, and 4 states have been declared noncompliant.

Name mismatch issues have created obstacles to getting a REAL ID–compliant license in many states. These problems surfaced most recently in New Mexico after its driver’s license law, passed in 2016 to comply with the REAL ID Act, went into effect. Now minor discrepancies, inverted first and middle names, and differences between the name on a birth certificate and an individual’s current name are causing major headaches for many New Mexico residents.

Before New Mexico’s new law went into effect, all residents—U.S. citizens, and documented and undocumented immigrants—could obtain the same license. Proving identity wasn’t a problem, even when the applicant’s documents contained name variations. New Mexico now requires that the names on any documents submitted to obtain a license match the individual’s legal name. According to Santa Fe District Judge David Thomson, “Many of the people affected by the heightened requirements [of REAL ID] are elderly, female and come from rural areas.”

New Mexico is a majority minority state—48 percent Latino, 10.5 percent Native American, with smaller percentages of Asian and Black residents. People with Spanish surnames, many of whose families have lived in New Mexico for centuries, face particular problems, as their names were Anglicized over the years or were spelled differently on various documents. As the Albuquerque Journal reported about New Mexico resident Inez Navarette, here’s how her first name is spelled on different documents: “… Hinez on her birth certificate. Maria Inez on her baptism certificate. Ynez on her marriage certificate and Social Security card. Ynes on her driver’s license.”

Women who have changed their names because of marriage or divorce need to provide documentation of the changes. That can be difficult and time-consuming, especially if certified documents must be obtained from out of state. And while they may be permitted to change a birth certificate to reflect their current name, that process isn’t available if the name change was due to marriage.

The need to resolve mismatched documents has forced many New Mexico residents to file name-change petitions in court. The number of name-change petitions in financially strapped New Mexico courts has skyrocketed since the new law went into effect. But the name-change process in court isn’t automatic. Judge Thomson reports that “with some of these elderly folks, it gets really complicated, especially if they are born in a rural part of the state and have a Spanish name. What is put on their birth certificate may not be used by them again for their whole life.”

And the legal name-change process is expensive for residents of one of the poorest states in the country. New Mexico currently has the nation’s highest unemployment rate. Name-change applicants pay fees for court filing, newspaper publication, certified copies, and obtaining documents from other states. They often need to miss critical days at work to attend court hearings.

How does any of this address national security issues? As Judge Thomson said, “Ironically, if you saw who was applying for these name changes, you would see they are probably the last class of people anyone would be concerned about when they passed this legislation. It looks like the front row of the 9 o’clock Mass at the St. Francis Cathedral.”

New Mexico and many other states offer non–REAL ID–compliant licenses in addition to REAL ID–compliant ones. In general, these “marked” licenses indicate that they are not acceptable for official federal purposes (the exact wording varies from state to state) and have a design or color that differentiates them from other licenses. These licenses are often available to U.S. citizens and other state residents who are lawfully present in the U.S. DHS “cautions against assuming that possession of a noncompliant card indicates the holder is an undocumented individual, given that several states issue noncompliant licenses for reasons unrelated to lawful presence.”

Vermont and New Mexico’s noncompliant licenses, for example, are available to all state residents. Wisconsin, which requires that applicants present proof of lawful presence to obtain a license, offers both REAL ID–compliant and noncompliant versions. Colorado issues an alternative license that is available only to non–U.S. citizens (documented and undocumented) who are not lawful permanent residents. The Washington legislature just passed a bill granting access to a REAL ID–compliant “enhanced” license only to U.S. citizens. Citizens who choose not to obtain an enhanced license, and immigrants regardless of their immigration status, may obtain a regular (noncompliant) license.

States expanded access to driver’s licenses to promote public safety and fairness. Making sure that drivers are trained and tested and can obtain insurance simply makes sense. But if a state chooses to issue a REAL ID–compliant license, it should ensure that eligible residents can get one without encountering unnecessary roadblocks.