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REAL ID Complications under Free Association

If Puerto Rico considers the possibility of free association with the United States as a possible future status option, it will be important to understand the implications of this status.

One way to explore this is to look at the current freely association states (FAS): the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

An issue for citizens of these nations has been the application of the REAL ID law to FAS migrants living in states.

What is a Real ID?

In 2005, the federal government set standards for the issuance of driver’s licenses and other state identification documents that can also serve as federal ID. The objective was to have a standard identification for Americans for national security reasons.

A REAL ID is gradually becoming a requirement to board domestic flights, enter federal buildings, and for other purposes.  As a practical matter, it is increasingly important to have a REAL ID to drive a car and show to an employer upon starting a new job.

The immigration status of FAS migrants was missing from the 2005 REAL ID Act, blocking them from receiving normal driver’s licenses and forcing them to have to renew their licenses and state IDs annually. 

To make the situation more challenging, the rules were not applied consistently, depending on the state and the clerk at the counter. Some FAS migrants were able to renew their licenses without difficulty, while others were referred to their consulates.

REAL ID changes

In 2018, the REAL ID Act Modification for Freely Associated States Act, H.R. 3398, was successfully passed into law with bipartisan backing, led by the late Congressman Don Young (R-AK) and cosponsored by Congresswoman Amata Radewagen, who gave a Statement for the Record.

In September of 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced rules related to the new law which mandated that an unexpired foreign passport and valid Form I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record) are acceptable identity documents for purposes of obtaining a REAL ID driver’s license or identification card for eligible citizens of the FAS.

Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and John Boozman (R-AR) spoke up for this legislation. Since their home state of Arkansas is home to the largest concentration of Marshallese citizens in the United States, they were aware of the importance of this bill. “Marshallese living in the U.S. have been denied anything more than a temporary ID or driver’s license valid only for one year, complicating their ability to maintain employment and open bank accounts,” the senators wrote.

Non-immigrants and non-citizens

FAS citizens may live, work and study in the United States, but they do not have U.S. citizenship. That unique arrangement caused the glitch that became so problematic.

Citizens of FAS nations who live in the United States are considered non-immigrant residents, not citizens. Just as being a non-citizen has caused FAS migrants to be dropped from the Medicaid program even when living in the States and continues to limit FAS migrants’ access to federal and state benefits, it led to confusion over the REAL ID.


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