Washington state to test drive border-friendly driver's license

The Homeland Security Department and Washington state have agreed to launch a pilot program, under which upgraded driver’s licenses could potentially serve as valid proof of U.S. citizenship at border crossings.

The agreement brought into relief the technical distinctions between the highly controversial Real ID program for secure driver’s licenses and the passport card program now being developed to assist the rollout of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative’s requirement that returning citizens show passports or other secure biometric credentials at a border.

The agreement could provide a boost to the embattled Real ID program which, like the WHTI’s passport card requirement, is intended to foil travel by terrorists and international criminals.

“We think it is a breakthrough,” DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Development Richard Barth said today, just before the opening of a Senate subcommittee hearing to examine the Real ID program. “We expect other border states will also [seek comparable hybrid documents].”

That hearing, held before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on the Oversight of Government Management, was scheduled to include witnesses whose prepared testimony strongly criticized the Real ID program. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) issued a prepared statement that also criticized the Real ID program and called for changes.

The Real ID program faces bitter opposition from some state governments, as well as from some vocal privacy advocates and federal lawmakers.

The passport card program, a phase of WHTI that is progressively tightening the documentation requirements for individuals entering the country by land, also has attracted criticism, especially along the northern U.S. border. Border state lawmakers have protested in harmony with their constituents, who historically have re-entered the country either with birth certificates or, in some cases, no credentials at all.

Border state officials have protested the additional bureaucratic hassle their constituents will face when they must start showing secure proof of citizenship, such as the new passport card or a U.S. passport, at land borders as of January 2008. Governments of border state also have protested the expense of obtaining the new credentials and their potential for hampering legitimate travel and trade.

“This pilot project is a way to boost security at our border without hampering trade and tourism,” Washington State Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a prepared statement. “Our effort to keep our border crossing moving is particularly important with the upcoming 2009 World Police and Fire Fighter Games and the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in British Columbia.”

The memorandum of understanding between DHS and Washington calls for the state to develop an enhanced driver’s license, which would be accepted for re-entry at land and sea ports, for residents who voluntarily apply and qualify.

DHS said in a press statement that the combo credential would be “slightly more expensive than a standard Washington state driver’s license, and will require proof of citizenship, identity and residence, as well as contain security features similar to a U.S. passport.”

DHS secretary Michael Chertoff praised the agreement, saying in a statement that “the foundation of terrorist and criminal activity is the ability to move undetected.” He added that security and efficiency at the borders can be harmonized, and thanked the state of Washington for helping to achieve the twin goals.

DHS soon will receive responses to a Real ID Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will address how to technically harmonize the security features of the upgraded driver’s licenses and the passport cards.

Wilson P. Dizard III writes for Government Computer News, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

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