U.S. unveils plans for ID Card Needed to return from Canada, Mexico

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration has unveiled its plans for the “passport lite” ID card for its citizens returning by land from Canada, a credit card-size document that features long-range radio frequency technology linked to a government database.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said yesterday Washington still wants to get its border security program up and running as close as possible to the original Jan. 1, 2008, deadline, even though Congress just last month approved a 17-month delay in the program.

The next step will be an agreement between Washington and Ottawa on what the Bush administration would accept as a comparable document to be used by Canadians entering the U.S. by land.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he is reluctant to introduce a national identity card because of the cost involved. There has been hope that Washington will accept existing driver’s licences with enhanced security features.

While no one here would say so on the record, it is highly unlikely Washington would accept less of Canadians than it requires of its own citizens.

“Once these final regulations are approved, we will work with Canadians on what would be an appropriate alternative document,” Homeland Security spokesperson Jarrod Agen said.

Harper had pressed U.S. President George W. Bush to delay implementation of the program and he warned in a speech in New York last month that new border rules threatened to divide Canada and the U.S. at a time when bilateral relations between the two countries were improving.

But in publishing its proposed rules for the card yesterday, the U.S. government said it is “designed specifically to address the needs and travel patterns of those who live in land border communities and frequently cross the border in their day-to-day activities.”

The proposals are subject to a 60-day consultation period in which members of the public and interested parties can offer suggestions and comments through a website.

A U.S. State Department official who spoke on background, said it was premature to speculate on what would come of negotiations between Ottawa and Washington.

He said this 60-day consultation period will be followed by a period early in 2007 for any redrafting of the rules, then the final rules will be posted, followed by another consultation period.

Questions about the technology to be used on the so-called Passport Card had been the driving force in delaying the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in the U.S. Congress, where it had been described as a “train wreck waiting to happen.”

In unveiling the radio frequency technology, Homeland Security went to lengths to try to reassure Americans their privacy will be protected.

It said no personal information will be stored or transmitted on the radio chip embedded in the card and the technology would transmit only a number which can be matched against a federal database. It also said it is “taking steps” to ensure that the number cannot be intercepted by an unauthorized reader during transmission from the border to the database.

“The deployment of this advanced technological solution will improve public safety, national security and the integrity of the immigration process,” Ralph Basham, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner said in a written statement.

The card can be read from up to 20 feet (6.1 metres) away as the driver approaches and the technology is similar to that used by highway toll systems across the continent.

More than one card can be read at a time. The card will cost adults $20 and children (under 16) $10, but there will be a one-time processing fee of $25 for each card, regardless of age.

It will be good for 10 years for adults and five years for children, rules which mimic the rules for a U.S. passport.

The passport card, the government says, is good only for U.S. citizens crossing land borders to return to this country or anyone travelling by sea between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda. It would not be accepted as a valid travel document anywhere else. Canadians will still need passports to enter the United States by air beginning Jan. 7, 2007.

Passports would still be the preferred identification at land border crossings, the U.S. said.

While only 26 per cent of Americans hold passports, the numbers are rising rapidly.

More than 200,000 Americans are obtaining passports each week, a 70 per cent jump in two years, the U.S. State Department said.

In 2003, the U.S. demand for passports had flatlined at about seven million per year, but the number of applications in this fiscal year could hit 12.5 million and is expect to jump again to about 16 million in 2007.

Requirements to obtain a Passport Card will be identical to the criteria now needed to obtain a U.S. passport and the data on the card will also be the same, bearing a picture which will be used as the biometric identifier, the holder’s full name, date and place of birth, card number, dates of validity and the issuing authority.

The Toronto Star