Push for new travel IDs continues despite concerns

Starting two years from now U.S. citizens, Canadians and Mexicans will need passports or alternate documents to cross land borders.

The Homeland Security and State departments are moving forward with a plan to require new travel documents for U.S. land-border crossings, despite concerns by border communities and businesses in both Canada and the United States.

Speaking at the Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, James Williams, director of the US-VISIT immigrant-tracking program, said the requirement for passports or other secure travel documents has two goals: to enhance security and facilitate legitimate travel and trade.

Beginning in 2008, citizens from the United States, Canada and Mexico will have to obtain passports or alternate identification cards that meet the statutory requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in order to cross land borders. The initiative was created under a 2004 intelligence law.

In January, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a plan to issue alternative passports. The standards for the documents have yet to be determined, but Williams said the department will request proposals in coming weeks, with hopes of having production capabilities by the end of the year.

Williams said the purpose of new ID cards is to offer an inexpensive alternative to passports for those living in border communities who frequently cross borders.

But Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Washington state, said a new document requirement will negatively impact the economies of the border communities.

Oplinger said about 80 percent of private U.S. ferry operations are in Washington. Much of that business relies on tourism, and the new border cards could cut into that business, he said, urging the Bush administration to find a long-term solution that addresses everyone's concerns.

He is part of coalition of business and associations from Canada, Michigan and New York that hopes to avoid the adoption of new travel documents by making the initiative subject to standards in a law that mandates federal standards for driver's licenses.

In order to meet the travel initiative's requirements, driver's licenses issued under that law would have to include nationalities, making them subject to State Department jurisdiction. Williams said the administration is pondering ways of harmonizing driver's licenses with department standards. He said "it is possible for a state to opt to meet the standards we set forth" for cross-border travel.

Shirley-Ann George, the vice president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said the United States must thoroughly study the impact of meeting the looming 2008 deadline. "It's about getting it right -- mitigating the damage" -- and not inhibiting legitimate commerce and tourism.

The Canadian chamber submitted for public comment several recommendations, including developing a comprehensive public education plan, making a new document affordable and accessible, and offering a short-term pass.

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