Tickets to travel
How border states, with the blessing of the Homeland Security Department, are setting their own card standards for identifying travelers at border crossings
- By Wade-Hahn Chan
- Sep 29, 2007
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative created such confusion and long lines at passport offices earlier this year that some border states have taken pre-emptive action. Washington, Vermont and Arizona officials say they want to avoid similar problems next year when the Homeland Security and State departments WHTI program will require residents to show passports at land and sea border crossings.
This year, WHTIs secure passport requirement applied only to air travelers. But public confusion about the programs deadlines caused panicked travelers to swamp passport offices, which quickly became overwhelmed by a volume of passport applications for which officials were unprepared. Meanwhile, officials in three border states Arizona, Vermont and Washington have developed secure-identity initiatives of their own. In each case, border state officials say they can issue security-enhanced drivers licenses that are more affordable and convenient than passport books and just as secure.
Echoes of the past summers passport processing delays weigh heavily on officials minds in border states whose residents regularly visit Canada and Mexico for commerce and as tourists, such as for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. Less than three hours of driving separate the Canadian city from Seattle. Were expecting a lot of cross-border travel, said Antonio Ginatta, policy adviser to Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Ginatta said only about 30 percent of the states residents hold passports. Because new passports cost $97, state officials are seeking a less expensive alternative.
Along with Arizona and Vermont and with DHS blessing Washington has proposed a technical standard for an enhanced drivers license that would fulfill WHTIs security requirements and possibly also be a card standard for another congressionally mandated secure-identity initiative, the Real ID program, which requires national drivers license standards.
Many officials agree that WHTI has brought more inconvenience than convenience to travelers. The initiative went into effect Jan. 23 for air travelers. U.S. residents and U.S. citizens who left the United States by plane were required to show a valid passport or birth certificate to re-enter the country.
The State Department, which issues passports, quickly found itself backlogged with nearly 3 million applications when residents applied for passports before the Jan. 23 deadline. People, who often faced delays of three months, missed business travel and vacations. Even those who paid for expedited processing failed to receive their passports on time. People flooded federal lawmakers offices with complaints about the delays.
State had hired 2,500 employees in the past three years to process passport applications, but it wasnt enough. In late June, the agency called on some Foreign Service employees overseas to return to share the load. President Bush signed legislation July 30 to allow retired Foreign Service employees to help process passport applications.
Ultimately, however, the volume of applications was simply too great to process in a timely manner. We failed to predict the record-setting compressed demand, said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, in July testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
State eventually relented and let U.S. residents and citizens arriving at airports from travel in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean region re-enter the United States if they could show they had applied for passports. The temporary accommodation for air travelers was valid until Sept. 30. State expects to process 17 million passport applications this year.
Harty said one problem State couldnt foresee was confusion about the WHTI implementation schedule, which applied only to air travel this year. Officials delayed the implementation at land and sea border crossings from January 2008 until summer 2008. I do sincerely regret that we missed the mark, Harty said.
Despite the temporary delay allowed for implementing WHTIs passport requirements for travelers at land and sea border crossings, border state officials are not keen to repeat the recent passport fiasco. Officials in Arizona, Vermont and Washington are working with DHS officials to create enhanced drivers licenses that would fulfill WHTI requirements for nonair travel at a fraction of the cost of a passport.
The proposed licenses are mostly unchanged from states current drivers licenses, except for one feature. Each new card would have a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip containing a single number that would confirm the license holders identity.
RFID has no personal information, only a unique identifier, Ginatta said. The number would serve as a proof of citizenship and would let DHS search state databases to identify people.
Officials said the licenses would be convenient to use because machines can read RFID chips at a distance. Cards containing the chips dont need to be inserted in a machine to be read.
The new licenses would cost $15 to $25 more than the current ones. Any person younger than the age of 16 would be allowed to use a birth certificate as proof of identity and anyone born before 1930 would be exempt from carrying that ID.
Ginatta said Washington and other border states have the infrastructure to handle RFID scanning in existing scanning stations that border states installed for the Nexus card program, a previous identity management initiative that allowed expedited border crossing procedures for preapproved, low-risk travelers. However, the RFID readers would likely be used only at major border gates under the WHTI initiative, he said.
Washingtons voluntary test program for the new drivers licenses is scheduled to begin in January 2008. We put about
$9 million [in the] biennial budget to buy technology that we need in terms of document verification technology and some infrastructure for office set-ups, training for staff thats going to be issuing the license and the actual license itself, Ginatta said.
The use of enhanced drivers licenses as an alternative to WHTI passports appealed to other border states. DHS announced in late August that Arizona and Vermont would join Washington in testing similar enhanced drivers licenses. Washington has made more progress than Arizona and Vermont with regard to draft standards and testing. Vermonts Motor Vehicle Department is in the midst of overhauling its information technology systems.
DHS officials would like to see other states get involved in similar enhanced drivers license efforts, said Kathy Kraninger, director of DHS Screening and Coordination Office.Filling two mandates
A prospect that gets some state officials excited is using enhanced drivers licenses to fulfill another mandate, the Real ID initiative.
The Real ID Act of 2005 requires that all states issue secure drivers licenses that meet national standards. Cost estimates for the program and its related infrastructure are as high as $14 billion.
DHS has yet to release final rules for the program, although officials have said they will issue them by the end of this year. Border state officials involved in testing enhanced drivers licenses for the WHTI program are hopeful that the same licenses will satisfy the card requirements of the Real ID program.
Were very optimistic about how the enhanced drivers license proposal fits around the Real ID proposal, Ginatta said, although other problems must be addressed. Washington was one of six states that passed legislation to forestall funding for Real ID
unless security and privacy concerns were addressed in the
Bonnie Rutledge, Vermonts DMV commissioner, said she, too, is optimistic that DHS is interested in making states enhanced drivers licenses satisfy Real ID requirements. Rutledge said DHS officials gave a presentation that said that the enhanced drivers licenses will be Real ID-compliant.