Lawmakers push compromise on ID cards

Bill calls for enhanced driver's licenses and changes to border passport program

Editor's note:This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. June 4, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

Two senators who voted to delay the implementation of nationally standardized driver’s licenses have proposed a compromise bill for secure identity cards. Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced a bill — the Western Hemisphere Traveler Improvement (WHTI) Act of 2007 — that would let people use upgraded, secure driver’s licenses  with radio frequency identification chips that would be read at border crossings.

The upgraded licenses would meet different requirements than those mandated by the Real ID Act, and the bill’s sponsors say their legislation would enhance security without delaying border crossings.

“After the fiasco we experienced with massive passport backlogs following the air rule change earlier this year, it is essential that we take every step to avoid travel disruption during the land phase” of WHTI, Coleman said in a statement.

The passport backlog that Coleman cited resulted from a new air rule that went into effect in January. That rule requires all U.S. citizens, including children, to carry a passport when traveling to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The new driver’s license bill would nix the passport requirement and let children under the age of 16 continue using birth certificates as valid proof of identity.

In the meantime, the WHTI passport card program continues to move forward.  The State and Homeland Security departments released a final request for proposals for the People Access Security Services (PASS) card, which some have dubbed passport-lite. The contract would include card development and production, testing and delivery in anticipation of a test program in the State Department’s Consular Affairs bureau.

The Coleman/Collins legislation would require officials at ports of entry to process and read passport cards in addition to standard passports.

“With the recent improvements in driver’s license security, we would be foolish not to allow Americans to voluntarily enroll in a program to allow their use for driving to Canada,” Coleman said.

However, some policy analysts question the difference between enhanced driver’s licenses and the controversial Real ID Act of 2005, which calls for nationally standardized secure driver’s licenses. Collins’ state of Maine voted to reject Real ID provisions, citing problems with cost and privacy. In response, Collins introduced legislation in February to delay the implementation of Real ID until 2009.

Officials in the identity management industry expressed surprise at Collins’ sponsorship of the new legislation.

“It is downright bizarre, in my mind, that a government official could be so vehemently opposed to Real ID driver’s license upgrades in one breath and in the next be excited about the possibility of an enhanced driver’s license with [a radio frequency identification] chip in it,” said Jeremy Grant, senior vice president and emerging technologies analyst at Stanford Eagle.

Grant said one discernible difference between the proposed WHTI and Real ID cards would be that the proposed enhanced driver’s license would cost less than the Real ID card.

Patrick Hearn, business development director of government identification at Oberthur Card Systems, said, “Given Maine’s geographic position, there would be tremendous logic to using an existing DHS infrastructure to allow people to cross into Maine and New Brunswick.” 

Hearn said driver’s licenses could easily be upgraded to serve the same function as passports.

Lawmakers’ new border-crossing proposalSens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) introduced a bill May 22 that modifies the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative’s identity requirements. The amendment:

  • Advocates further study of the feasibility of using enhanced driver’s licenses to improve security at border crossings.
  • Requires an analysis of a separate driver’s license test program that Washington state officials will conduct.
  • Requires that all ports of entry be able to process and read People Access Security Services cards, commonly known as passport-lite cards.
  • Allows children under the age of 16 to use birth certificates as valid proof of identity rather than carry passports as required under WHTI.
  • Creates six permanent locations and mobile enrollment teams to process passport and passport card applications.
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