U.S. citizens could potentially travel passport-free to and from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda until January.
The State of Washington has signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to allow state residents to present RFID-enhanced drivers' licenses to cross land and sea borders when the federal government begins requiring passports.
Governor Chris Gregoire helped launch the pilot program on Friday that could be an alternative to current travel requirements as suggested in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
With the technology, the state claims U.S. citizens could potentially travel passport-free to and from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda. The 9/11 Commission recommended requiring more secure and reliable identification and Congress approved the recommendation in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. Now, most travelers must present passports for cross-border air travel and that requirement will be extended to land and sea travel, possibly as soon as January 2008.
DHS makes some allowances for alternative documents it deems secure, but authorities aim to reduce the number of identity documents (currently reported at more than 8,000) that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents evaluate while considering whether to allow entry into the United States.
Washington plans to offer enhanced drivers' licenses with RFID to applicants who volunteer, qualify and pay a higher fee. The state did not release more details about the program, but Gregoire said it was a good way to increase security without hurting trade and tourism.
"Our effort to keep our border crossing moving is particularly important with the upcoming 2009 World Police and Fire Fighter Games and the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in British Columbia," she said in a prepared statement.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff issued a statement saying border security and efficiency can be harmonized.
"The foundation of terrorist and criminal activity is the ability to move undetected," he said. "We're striking at that foundation with secure documentation requirements, at our borders, that enable our frontline personnel to focus more effectively on the people and things that intend to do us harm.
Some states have resisted the federal government's attempts to increase security of licenses through the REAL ID Act. Washington State appears to may have headed off similar concerns by making its pilot program voluntary.
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