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Technology Offers Security and Speed at the Border

WHILE THE U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pushed back deadlines for its two biggest identity-verification efforts—the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) and implementation of the REAL ID Act—the department expects to meet the June 1 deadline for full implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI).

Mandated by law and based on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, WHTI imposes documentation requirements for U.S. citizens re-entering the country by land or sea, and it formalizes requirements for Canadians, Mexicans, and citizens of Caribbean nations. Gone are the days when a verbal declaration of U.S. citizenship would speed a traveler past a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoint.

Beginning two years ago, U.S. citizens returning to the United States by air had to present passports for re-entry. WHTI’s land-and-sea requirements took effect last January, requiring one of several options for re-entry: a passport or one of the existing “trusted traveler” documents for vetted travelers, such as the U.S.- Canadian NEXUS card or the Free and Secure Trade (or FAST) card—the latter specifically intended for truck drivers.

Last year, CBP and the State Department introduced a new option for land and sea crossings: a passport card, intended to add convenience and to reduce the cost to carriers. The cards are wallet-sized and are priced at $45 for first-time applicants compared to $100 for the traditional passport book.

The cards feature RFID chips, making it possible for CBP officers to read the card data from several feet away as carriers drive up to checkpoints while holding up the cards. That feature is expected to help prevent backups at busy border crossings.

The RFID chips do not contain personal information, only a number identifying the card. The number correlates to information in a State Department database that houses passport card data. As cardholders approach the checkpoints, the system remotely queries that database, which then transmits the passport cardholder’s personal data to the agent at the checkpoint for verification against both the traveler’s card and his or her physical appearance.

By the end of 2008, reader systems were in place at four major crossing points: Blaine, Washington; Buffalo, New York; Nogales, Arizona; and Detroit. CBP is now deploying the RFID reader technology at another 35 high-volume land border crossings that, combined with the first four, account for 95 percent of annual crossings, enough to satisfy legal compliance requirements by the June 1 deadline.

Until the deadline, U.S. citizens re-entering the country have an alternative documentation option—a government-issued photo ID and a birth certificate.

By June 1, most U.S. citizens not covered by preexisting trusted traveler programs will need a passport, passport card, or a third option: a state-issued enhanced driver’s license (EDL), which incorporates a WHTI-compliant RFID chip. The states of New York and Washington issued the drivers’ licenses last year, with Arizona, Michigan, and Vermont expected to start issuing EDLs this year for a surcharge of $15 to $30 above standard fees. EDLs are not inherently REAL ID Act-compliant or vice versa.

At a recent conference on U.S.-Canadian border collaboration hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, WHTI program manager Colleen Manaher of CBP said WHTI’s RFID technology works. Her agency’s greatest challenge lies in educating the public about the program and new border- crossing protocols. “But those things can be overcome in time,” she told attendees.

CBP officials told Congress in 2008 that RFID-enabled documents like the agency’s Border Crossing Card, issued to vetted Mexican citizens, have cut border crossing wait times 27 percent, while James D. Phillips, president and CEO of the Canadian/American Border Trade Alliance, said RFID technology and institution of dedicated lanes could reduce wait times by two-thirds or more.

After the 39 major land border crossings, CBP will address the remaining 124. Those sites will get either the RFID technology or simpler, less expensive optical technology to read passport cards’ bar codes.

Leading up to the June 1 deadline, CBP and the State Department hope to avoid a backlog of passport and passport card applications. In the weeks immediately following WHTI’s passport requirement for air travel, application turnaround times ballooned from four weeks to three months.

The State Department doubled passport-processing capacity between December 2007 and December 2008. As a result, turnarounds for passports are back to four weeks and take roughly three weeks for passport cards, according to State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson.