You shouldn't have to carry papers in America

There's nothing suspicious about existing in public

A passport.
(Image credit: Illustrated | goodmoments/iStock, MicrovOne/iStock)

You shouldn't have to carry papers in America.

Of course, there are situations where documents will always be required — I don't expect us to operate cars or board planes without a license or passport — but simply being in public should not require proof of identity or justification of presence. The mere fact of existing outside one's residence is not suspicious. If I want to take a stroll to the corner store with nothing but cash in my pockets, there should be nothing risky about that.

And for me, there probably wouldn't be. But for others, the reality is much scarier. "Hi, U.S. citizen here of Dominican descent," began a recent message to reporter Adrian Carrasquillo, who was collecting stories from Hispanic Americans and immigrants about their experience of the current political climate. "I carry my passport card with me at all times," the note continued. "I have anxiety to be in public."

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Most of that correspondent's fears were linked to unpredictable threats from uncertain sources — the risk of experiencing an attack like the white supremacist shooting in El Paso, for example, or being "targeted" by unspecified persons for political protest. But the passport habit is more pointed, an effort to guard against the very specific danger of having no satisfactory answer when asked by law enforcement: "Papers, please."

That is not a fear anyone in the United States ought to experience, citizen or not, as a matter of practicality and principle alike. (Some states allow police officers to compel you to identify yourself — to tell them your name — but you are not legally required to provide documentary proof if you are not being arrested. That said, the Supreme Court has ruled that police may be excused for initiating stops based on legal ignorance or misunderstanding, so that protection is functionally no guarantee.)

The pragmatic issues are several. One is that millions of American adults — more than one in 10, per a widely cited 2006 survey — do not have a valid government-issued ID, the sort we are expected to produce when identification is requested. Lack of ID may be difficult to imagine if you've had a license since 16, as many of us have, but it's not so strange in dense urban areas like New York, where many people do not drive.

Elderly people in rural areas, born before modern record-keeping practices and perhaps residents of the same small town their entire lives, are also disproportionately likely to be without ID. A 2012 NPR report on ID requirements, for example, featured an 84-year-old lifelong Wisconsinite, Ruthelle Frank, who was accused of being an illegal immigrant when she tried to vote without photo ID. She didn't drive and so supplied the best ID she had: a baptismal certificate. When she tried to get a state-issued ID, Frank ran into further difficulties, as she did not have a copy of her own birth certificate; the copy held by the state registrar misspelled her name; and to correct the error and obtain a copy — both necessary to move forward with photo ID acquisition — would have cost several hundred dollars.

For many people in America, elderly and rural or not, very ordinary obstacles like these would prove insurmountable. Those people do not thus become a threat to public safety, and their own public safety should not on this count be under threat.

Like other security state proposals, disparate impact is also a real concern. Think of people like Francisco Erwin Galicia, an American citizen with Mexican family members who was held for nearly a month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after failing to prove his citizenship to agents' satisfaction. Galicia was detained even with valid ID — multiple IDs, in fact — and he's one of about 1,500 Americans who have been through similar ordeals with ICE in the last seven years. A formalized ID requirement could easily spike that number far higher, most often affecting naturalized citizens, legal residents, and Americans of Hispanic descent, like the author of that message who always carries a passport.

And there's the ethic of the thing. "In every European country that I'm aware of, it's a misdemeanor or a felony not to carry ID (implicitly, proof of citizenship) at all times," Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a contributor to The Week, recently wrote. "I very much appreciate America's libertarian tradition of 'ID? What ID?' but the idea that requiring people to be able to show ID is some fascistic departure from widely-accepted democratic norms is unreal (and very provincial)."

Maybe Gobry is right: Maybe there is something anachronistic or even naive about rejecting universal ID requirements in the 21st century. But if so, it's an anachronism worth preserving, an Americanism we ought to keep. Like our legal system's (theoretically) inviolate insistence that all are innocent until proven guilty, so we should insist that there is nothing wrong — nothing fishy, nothing strange — about the act of being in public without documents. The burden of proof is not on us.

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Bonnie Kristian

Bonnie Kristian was a deputy editor and acting editor-in-chief of She is a columnist at Christianity Today and author of Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (forthcoming 2022) and A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (2018). Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, USA Today, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.