Feds see strong demand for border-crossing cards

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have applied voluntarily for new and expanded border-crossing identification cards that will serve as alternatives to U.S. passports under the Bush Administration's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, officials said.

The travel initiative is to be fully in effect by June 2009. Under its terms, U.S. citizens must show either a U.S. passport or other approved document at the border, such as a passport card, enhanced driver's license, or a Nexus, Fast or Sentri trusted-traveler card.

To date, more than 143,000 people have applied for the U.S. Passport Card to be issued by the State Department in cooperation with the Homeland Security Department, Derwood Staeben, senior adviser to the Bureau of Consular Affairs, testified on April 16. The passport card will be similar in size to a credit card and will contain a radio frequency identification tag and a photograph.

"Given the volume of applications to date, particularly from the southern border states, there is clearly a demand for the card," Staeben told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism.

State expects to begin issuing the passport cards starting in June and to be in full production by July, he said.

In addition, more than 21,000 people have applied for enhanced driver's licenses being issued by Washington state in conjunction with the Homeland Security Department, said Kathleen Kraninger, deputy assistant secretary of policy for screening coordination at DHS, who also testified at the hearing. About 8,500 of the cards have been issued so far, she said.

Washington state developed the hybrid card to serve jointly as a driver's license and U.S. border card. It began offering the enhanced licenses in January.

Arizona, New York and Vermont also are working on enhanced driver's licenses to be issued later this year, and the Canadian province of British Columbia began issuing enhanced driver's licenses to its citizens this month, Kraninger said.

"We expect Ontario and Quebec to follow by the end of the year," Kraninger said. "We continue to work with other states, including Michigan, which has recently passed legislation supporting the development of an enhanced driver's license."

The State and Homeland Security departments also continue to issue Nexus, Sentri (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) and Fast (Free and Secure Trade) cards for pre-screened frequent travelers over the Mexican and Canadian borders.

Those three programs have a total of 436,000 members and are expected to expand to 1.6 million participants by the end of fiscal 2009, Kraninger said. From March 31, 2007, to March 31, 2008, membership in Nexus has increased by over 50 percent, while membership in Sentri has increased by 35 percent, she said.

"For frequent crossers, the ability to use dedicated Nexus or Sentri lanes at the border for expedited processing is a very clear benefit sought by the traveling public," she said.

The passport card and enhanced driver's licenses will use wireless RFID tags to transmit information on the holder of the cards. To protect privacy, the RFID tags will transmit a reference number that must be looked up in a secure Homeland Security Department database to obtain personal information on the cardholder.

The RFID tag to be used in the passport cards and enhanced driver's licenses is a recent and proven technology, Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement released earlier this month.

"The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will be implementing the latest state-of-the-art RFID technology, which has been assessed and tested to achieve a 95 percent read rate of up to 8 occupants in a vehicle at a range of 10 to 15 feet," Chertoff said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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