Proof of identity, citizenship now required when entering U.S.
Starting Jan. 22, Washington will become the first state to unveil the enhanced driver’s license, a new form of official identification that can be used to help speed things up when crossing the border.
This comes just weeks before new security measures kick in on Jan. 31 requiring all adult travelers to present proof of citizenship and identity when entering the United States. Security guards will no longer accept an oral declaration of citizenship and a government-issued photo ID will be required for travelers older than 19.
The new restrictions are a precursor to the eventual requirement that all travelers entering the United States carry a passport. That requirement was supposed to go into effect this summer, but a recent congressional appropriations bill signed by the president just before the new year includes a provision extending that deadline to June 2009.
Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the enhanced driver’s license will help many people meet these new requirements. In 2005, he joined with other chambers of commerce from cities around the country that are located near a border crossing, such as Buffalo, N.Y. and Detroit, Mich. This group, called Business for Economic Security, Trade and Tourism, took on several initiatives related to border crossing issues, one of which was the enhanced driver’s license.
In pursuing a low-cost travel document, Oplinger said the group chose to improve the driver’s license because of its simplicity.
“You’ve already got it in your wallet,” he said. “Everyone always carries their driver’s license with them. Once you get [the enhanced driver’s license], that’s all you need. You don’t have to carry your birth certificate, you don’t have to carry a passport. That will be sufficient to get you over the land and sea borders.”
Four other states have signed onto the enhanced license program and Oplinger said others are considering it. On the other side of the border, British Columbia is several weeks away from unveiling their enhanced license.
“We’re actually getting much better uptake there,” Oplinger said. “We should have probably five provinces on board by next summer.”
Enhanced license to have three major changes
There are three substantial changes that will make the new card an enhanced license. The first thing people will notice is a flag icon, indicating the bearer’s nationality. It will be similar to the heart symbol that organ donors have on their licenses, Oplinger said.
The second difference is the addition of a Radio Frequency Identification Chip (RFID). This chip will not contain any personal information, but will instead have a 96-digit number that will point to a person’s information in the security database.
“When you’re in that on-deck circle, you’ll hold your driver’s license out and it will pick up that RFID signal,” Oplinger said. “The database will ping off the number that’s squawked out, so by the time you get up to the booth, all the information is on the screen. There’s no need to hand them your driver’s license or have them keystroke in all the information, so it should actually speed things up.”
The final addition to the enhanced license is a Machine Readable Zone, a bar-code like combination of letters and numbers that is already standard on passports. For those border crossings that do not have an RFID antenna, the code will allow guards to quickly scan the license and access personal information.
With all of these enhancements, Oplinger said he hopes that the new driver’s license will ease the border crossing for Americans re-entering the States and especially for Canadians looking to spend their highly valued currency in Whatcom County.
“If you go back to 1990, when we had a 94-cent Canadian dollar — which was the last time it was close to the level it is today — we had twice the number of people crossing that we do today,” Oplinger said, referencing information produced by the College of Business and Economics at Western that superimposes the average exchange rate with the number of cars crossing local borders (see graph).
”The lines weren’t any longer then than they are now. The difference is the security measures and the way that we deal with the border has changed. When you get up to the primary booth, it’s taking longer to clear you out. We still have lines that are two or three hours long on weekends, but we’re getting fewer cars through that border.”
If people can’t get across the border in a smooth or timely manner, local tourism and retail could face an economic hit. Loni Rahm, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, said that the new border requirements are posted in the visitors center on Potter Street in hopes of helping people cross easily.
“Most people, if they are planning on traveling, will have everything in order,” Rahm said. “We’re after the people who didn’t plan for a trip to Canada.”
Jim Pettinger, president of International Market Access, a company that offers warehousing and market services to cross-border businesses, said he thinks the enhanced driver’s license may take awhile to catch on, even with the new border restrictions.
“It’s going to be difficult to get a whole lot of extra people using this,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.”
However, Pettinger said he is not worried about the new rules and that the enhanced driver’s license will not affect his regular customers.
“My feeling is that most regular business travelers have a passport already,” said Pettinger, who is also a strong proponent of the NEXUS program. “The enhanced driver’s license is only going to help people crossing in the regular lane.”
However, one of the ways he said he markets his business is by inviting potential customers down to tour the facility. As border security has tightened over the years, Pettinger said he has seen the number of customer visits drop.
Eventually, passports will be required for everyone crossing the border, as stated in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative passed in 2004. However, with a strong push from border cities and chambers of commerce, the congress recently approved a measure extending that requirement to June 2009.
Oplinger said he is optimistic that the enhanced driver’s license will catch on. More importantly, he said, local businesses should still expect to see Canadian visitors.
“What it’s going to mean for businesses here is that people from Canada will have a much lower cost option and be able to continue making that trip over,” Oplinger said. “There’s already a lot of barriers to making it. We didn’t want this to be one more.”
How to get your Enhanced Driver’s License
Where: Department of Licensing, 4180 Cordata Pkwy.
Call: 676-2096 to schedule an appointment
What to bring: birth certificate or proof of nationality, current driver’s license or proof of identity, proof of residency such as a utility bill or homeowner’s insurance